UCL has been selected as the 'hub' of the new £250m UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), to be led by Professor Bart De Strooper, current leader of the Laboratory for the Research of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Leuven and scientific director at VIB (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie) in Belgium.
The UK DRI is a joint £250m investment into dementia research led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) alongside founding charity partners Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. The Institute will be catalytic in the UK’s research efforts to diagnose, treat, care for and prevent dementias, a group of neurodegenerative disorders which include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and vascular dementia. It will transform dementias research by connecting researchers working across different disciplines, including those outside of the dementias field, and attracting leading experts from around the UK and the world.
Professor De Strooper was chosen as the Director of the UK DRI after a competitive international search led by the MRC. People living with dementia and carers from the founding charity networks met the final candidates to contribute their views into the decision making process. The Institute will ultimately operate across a number of UK locations, with its ‘Hub’ to be based at UCL, which was chosen through a competitive peer-review process. UCL was recognised for its world-class dementias research and state-of-the-art facilities, which will be enhanced through close linkage to a number of regional DRI centres, to be established over the coming months.
Professor De Strooper said: “I am delighted to have been chosen to lead on a world-leading initiative with as much potential as the UK DRI. The research landscape in the UK is brimming with talent and opportunity and, thanks to the NHS, research is closely allied to patients.”
Recent advances in genetics, diagnostics and imaging have advanced scientists’ understanding of what causes dementia. However, with significant knowledge gaps still in place, there are currently no treatments available that can stop or slow down the progressive condition.
Professor De Strooper continued, “Right now, our understanding of these diseases is not dissimilar to what we knew, or thought we knew, about cancer several decades ago. What we need is a paradigm shift in the way we think about dementias. Just as we realised that a whole range of factors is responsible for how cancers occur and progress in an individual, we now need to take a more holistic view of dementia and accept that a wide range of approaches may be needed in order to be successful. We have a huge amount of discovery science to do – and I want to see real surprises.”
With dementia recently recognised as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, and with a globally ageing population, it is more urgent than ever to accelerate efforts. Professor De Strooper believes that if we can intervene at the earliest possible stage, it may be possible to get a step ahead and delay, or ultimately prevent, its onset with a range of targeted treatments.
Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “Based in the heart of London’s knowledge quarter, this new dementia research institute at UCL will be the centre of a UK-wide effort to develop new treatments that will improve the lives of millions both here in the UK and around the globe. This is another example of the UK’s world-class leadership in global science and research, and the core strengths we will build on through our upcoming Industrial Strategy.”
Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive at the MRC, added: “Dementias research is a very high priority at the MRC and the new Institute will place the UK at the centre of a global ambition to overcome these diseases. We are thrilled to have attracted such an outstanding scientist as Professor De Strooper and look forward to seeing his ambitious vision bringing together the best science across the UK and internationally to move the frontier of knowledge in dementias research.”
UCL President and Provost, Professor Michael Arthur, said: “UCL can lay claim to world-leading expertise across the spectrum of dementia research, from genetics to evidence based treatments and support for patients and carers. We have both the ambition and ability to make a difference and meet the challenge of this most pressing of global public health problems.
“Our vision for a DRI is a truly national asset that facilitates exchanges of ideas, people and resources between groups, disciplines and centres. A UCL DRI Hub will enable and support all DRI centres to deliver on the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge 2020 and internationally on the G8 Dementia Summit Declaration.”
Professor David Lomas, UCL Vice-Provost (Health), added: “Over the last two decades there has been remarkable progress in understanding the human brain and the biology of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. UCL has been at the forefront of these discoveries.
"But despite progress in basic science, there remains a lack of effective treatments. The scientific challenge is huge and we have been proponents of a national centre to address this for some time. As a global multi-faculty university, UCL provides access to world-leading specialist centres within and beyond biomedicine that will be integral to developing new technologies and approaches to understand neurodegeneration.”
Professor Alan Thompson, Dean of the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences who led the UCL bid, said: “We are uniquely placed to host the DRI Hub and look forward to playing an enabling role nationally in driving the therapeutic agenda forward. We have worked hard as a team to secure this critically important award and I am indebted to the entire team, particularly the Director of the Institute of Neurology, Professor Mike Hanna and the Chair of the Dementia Strategy Board, Professor Nick Fox
"UCL has internationally leading dementia genetics research, with major programmes in Alzheimer’s, Frontotemporal Dementia, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, Prion and other neurodegenerative diseases. Brain imaging and biochemical markers of disease are providing valuable new tools for clinical trials whilst the strength of our clinical cohorts, expertise and biological resources allow emerging new treatments to be tested for the first time in people – a key stage in the development of new therapies.
"The entire team looks forward to welcoming Professor Bart de Strooper in his capacity as DRI Director, working with him to enable his vision and to deliver a transformative UCL DRI Hub putting patients and their families at its heart, as partners and as inspiration for our efforts.”