The tireless efforts of these four leading scientists to understand Alzheimer's have provided the foundation for treatment of one of the most devastating diseases of our era. For this, they are receiving the world's most valuable prize for brain research, The Lundbeck Foundation Brain Prize, worth 1 million euros.
Denmark sees 7,500 new cases of dementia every year, changing the lives of Danish families for ever. People with dementia gradually lose their memories, their personalities change and they lose the ability to function in their daily lives. In Denmark, 80,000 patients already live with some form of dementia – and, little by little, their brain cells are destroyed. Around 50,000 of these patients have Alzheimer's disease.
There is still no cure for dementia such as Alzheimer's; we can only provide medication for temporary alleviation of symptoms. But thanks to four leading European scientists and their many years of intense research in the laboratory, the way is now paved for better treatment and, in time, prevention.
The four scientists are Bart De Strooper from Belgium, Michel Goedert from Luxembourg, Christian Haass from Germany and John Hardy from the UK. They are recognised for their highly specialised studies of Alzheimer's disease and other dementia disorders and are now being awarded the world's most valuable prize for brain research, The 2018 Brain Prize, worth 1 million euros (approximately 7.5 million Danish kroner). This year’s prizewinners were announced on Tuesday, 6 March at the spring meeting of the Danish Society for Neuroscience.
Together, these four internationally respected neuroscientists have revolutionised our understanding of the harmful changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer's disease. Their research achievements form the basis for development of the drugs that are currently tested as therapies for the disease.
The organisation behind the prize is the Lundbeck Foundation, one of Denmark's largest sponsors of biomedical research. The chairman of the foundation’s Selection Committee, Professor Anders Björklund, explains the reasoning behind the award:
“The research of the four prizewinners has far-reaching perspectives for our understanding not only of Alzheimer's disease but of other dementia disorders, too. Their research has provided a foundation for the design of drugs to counter the pathogenic processes. This gives us hope that we will be able to slow Alzheimer's disease and, perhaps, even prevent it.”
One of the most expensive disorders
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia and the total cost of treatment and care makes it one of the most expensive disorders in the western world. In Denmark alone, the costs associated with dementia disorders are estimated at more than DKK 20 billion annually.
Incidence of Alzheimer's disease is expected to treble over the next 30 to 40 years, unless we can develop medical therapies that slow down or arrest progress of the disease.
Consequently, we urgently need to develop and strengthen brain research. “At the Lundbeck Foundation, brain research is our focus area, and we’re the country’s main provider of funds for brain research. Our aim is for Denmark to become a magnet for the most talented, international neuroscientists and for Denmark to become one of the world’s leading brain research nations. The Brain Prize provides a perfect supplement to the 250 million Danish kroner granted by the Lundbeck Foundation to brain research each year,” says Kim Krogsgaard, Director of The Brain Prize.
No-one knows the cause
German doctor Alois Alzheimer described the disease as far back as 1906, but no-one yet knows what causes its onset. Alzheimer's primarily affects older people but is seen in adults of all ages.
Once the disease develops, brain cells gradually die and proteins accumulate both between the brain cells (beta-amyloid plaques) and inside the brain cells (tau tangles). These proteins have a function in the normal brain, but in Alzheimer's patients they are produced in an abnormal form, causing them to accumulate which leads to the disease.
Four significant contributions
By the nineties, prizewinner Christian Haass already knew that beta-amyloid is not the result of a pathogenic process but that the protein forms naturally from precursors. Haass also identified and described the secretase enzymes which control its formation. Thanks to Haass’ research, we now know that the accumulation of beta-amyloid between brain cells is due to an imbalance in the production and the clearance of amyloid.
Bart De Strooper’s significant contribution was to describe in detail how the secretases are constructed and how they function. This insight led to the development of drugs which either lower production or increase clearance of beta-amyloid.
Michel Goedert has proved that the tau protein is the most important constituent of the tangles we see inside the neurons in Alzheimer's. Goedert was also instrumental in proving it likely that tau itself plays a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
Steen Hasselbalch, Professor at the University of Copenhagen and Alzheimer's specialist, says:
“Goedert’s most recent and very exciting discovery is that tau can spread within the brain. With this discovery, Goedert has shown that Alzheimer's is more than just an accumulation of beta-amyloid. It has given us valuable new ideas for the development of therapies.”
Finally, John Hardy’s work focuses on the genetic mutations that can cause Alzheimer's. In rare cases, Alzheimer's disease is inherited, and there are families in which the risk of contracting the disease from one parent is 50%. Based on his genetic studies, John Hardy and his co-workers were the driving force behind the hypothesis that accumulation of beta-amyloid is the cause of Alzheimer's disease.
Prizewinners to visit Denmark
The Brain Prize, which honours the world’s best neuroscientists, is being awarded for the eighth successive year. The prizewinners are invited to Denmark to deliver lectures and to participate in conferences, meetings and workshops together with Danish brain researchers. The programme is organised in partnership with the three largest Danish universities, the Danish Society for Neuroscience and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS).
The scientists will come to Denmark on 9 May to receive the Brain Prize at a ceremony in the Royal Danish Library Black Diamonds Building.
This article has been republished from materials provided by Lundbeckfonden -The Brain Prize. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.