Help to build a brains trust

Funders pool £30m for the interdisciplinary study of dementia. Zoe Corbyn reports

October 2, 2008

Two of the UK's largest medical research funders have announced plans to provide an extra £30 million to investigate dementia diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC) this week put out a joint call for research proposals to study the mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative diseases.

The increased investment coincides with the release of a review by the MRC that recommends that more money be spent researching the diseases, which also include multiple sclerosis, Huntington's disease, motor neuron disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The MRC currently spends about £49 million a year on neurodegeneration research, while the Wellcome Trust contributes about £21 million.

Launching the new funding, Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the diseases could be devastating for those affected and for their families and friends. He said there was an important need to develop new treatments and ways of identifying the diseases early.

The incidence of dementia - most often caused by Alzheimer's disease - is growing as the population ages. Numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years, said Rob Buckle, programme manager for the neurosciences and mental health board at the MRC.

"There is quite a big discrepancy between the amount of funding going into the area and the burden of disease, which is ever growing," he said. "The therapies that exist at the moment are limited in their effectiveness, and often when (people) present in the clinic it is too late to help them in any substantive way."

The funding, £20 million from the Wellcome Trust and £10 million from the MRC, is intended to fund a small number of large-scale interdisciplinary collaborations between established research groups. The organisations hope to bring together scientists working in a diverse range of specialisms, including genetics, molecular biology and physiology.

It is an exciting approach to the problem, said Richard Morris, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust, because the field had never had funding through large strategic awards that brought together many types of scientists.

"Traditionally the diseases have been studied in isolation of each other, but there is an increasing recognition that the disease mechanisms underlying them are shared to some extent," Dr Buckle said.

Initial submissions are due on 12 December and will be peer reviewed by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC. Grants are expected to range from £2 million to £5 million and last between three and five years.

Dr Buckle identified four areas that he expected the scientists involved to concentrate on.

The first centred around enhancing understanding of the mechanisms of disease, including improving the animal models being used.

The second was identifying how existing drugs can be targeted more effectively. This includes establishing the best time window for treatment.

The third focuses on early diagnosis. By the time dementia is diagnosed, the brain is often too degenerated to be helped much, he said. "If we can understand the disease, it may be possible to identify 'biomarkers' that might allow us to have early diagnosis," he explained.

The fourth area highlighted was identifying new "therapeutic targets" - the proteins in the nerve cells that new drugs should attack. "(We want to) accelerate the discovery of new targets and hopefully give the pharmaceutical industry an opportunity to link in and take things forward," Dr Buckle explained.

Dr Buckle said that stem cells - which have been much touted as a potential cure for such diseases - would be only a "minor component" of the grants awarded because the research was still at such an early stage. "We would not say 'no', but really we are talking about trying to find targets for pharmaceutical interventions," he said.

Dr Buckle said the focus was on applications with the potential to inform clinical trials. He added that links with industry were encouraged and that there was scope for international groups to join consortia. Applications to establish major disease research centres could be a possibility, added Professor Morris.

Michel Goedert, head of neurobiology at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, welcomed the extra funding. "I hope this is seen as the first tranche of new investment," he said.

To coincide with the funding announcement, the MRC released a "strategic review of neurodegeneration". Among other things, it recommends that there should be new investment for disease mechanisms and that the money should be "tightly focused" in "larger multidisciplinary programmes".

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