Joining forces to beat Alzheimer’s
Earlier this year, the American neurologist Dennis J Selkoe received an honorary doctorate at the University of Leuven (KULeuven). Following the ceremony, the 70-year-old Harvard professor gave an inspiring lecture called “Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease” in front of a crowded auditorium. The speech focused on prevention of the best-known (and most feared) brain disease in the absence of real progress within the medical community in the search for a cure.
Academia and pharmacy bridge the gap in research on brain diseases
Only a decade ago, many researchers in the field were optimistic that a cure for Alzheimer’s would be developed “within a foreseeable period”. Nowadays, most of them have lowered their expectations. Even Selkoe, the most-cited Alzheimer’s expert in the world and a born optimist, strongly doubts that doctors will ever be able to stop the disease entirely.
That’s why – and this was the message in his lecture – we should concentrate our efforts now on preventing and delaying, rather than curing, Alzheimer’s.
No magic pill
Selkoe received this honorary degree thanks to a nomination by two Flemish colleagues: Bart De Strooper and Wim Robberecht. Both are neuroscientists and lead research teams at the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) and KULeuven. De Strooper’s work concerns the basic mechanisms causing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, starting from the genetic forms of these disorders. Robberecht’s team investigates neurodegenerative diseases with locomotive symptoms, like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – the one that keeps cosmologist Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair.
Add to these two well-established names Christine Van Broeckhoven of VIB and the University of Antwerp – one of the world’s pioneers in dementia research – and it’s clear that Flanders boasts a strong and thriving research tradition in neurodegenerative diseases.
But articles and citations in high-ranked scientific journals alone won’t get people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s anywhere. (However, there is a small possibility that elderly people might postpone getting ill by just trying to decipher these articles, as an example of mind-training.) To prevent, delay or even to better diagnose these brain diseases, we need new drugs and treatments and state-of-the-art imaging techniques.
However, in spite of all the excellent work that has been done at the fundamental research level, no one has really come up with a “magic pill” that keeps our brain cells alive.
Now Janssen R&D, the research division of the American pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, wants to deliver some extra momentum to the painstakingly slow process of drug and treatment development. The company has allocated €5 million to a new grant scheme that aims to bridge the “translational gap” in research on neurodegenerative diseases.
Janssen’s new project bears the name Stellar and will run for at least five years. Its first call for research projects is aimed at VIB, KULeuven and Leuven’s University Hospital, which are united in the Leuven Institute for Neuroscience and Disease. A second call will go out later this year, when other academic centres from the Benelux are also invited to request a grant.
A scientific board made up of independent researchers and Janssen’s R&D division will evaluate every submitted project proposal and decide which one gets funding for the next five years – and how much.
“Today there are several research groups doing excellent work on neurodegenerative diseases, but what we still lack is cross-fertilisation between all these sub-areas of research,” says Jérôme Van Biervliet of VIB. “Stellar makes it possible to overview the relevant research landscape from a higher perspective and to explore what’s really inside that could contribute to further applied research.”
In any case, he continues, “we need a big partner if we are to move on in this field, if we want to bring a possible drug or treatment from the lab to the hospital bedside.”
“Traditionally, we have been concerned with patients with neurodegenerative diseases,” says Husseini Manji, head of Janssen R&D’s neuroscience division. “We believe that co-operation with external innovators is essential to making ground-breaking discoveries – those that put us on the right track for working therapies in the future.”
Becoming an epidemic
Approximately 160,000 people
suffer from dementia today.
In two out of three cases, this
is caused by Alzheimer’s – the
other third is caused by common
loss of memory associated
with ageing. Because of rapid
ageing in Western societies,
the number of patients with
dementia and Alzheimer’s is
rising quickly. In 2030, it is
estimated that 250,000 people
will have lost, in full or in part,
their main cognitive abilities
– unless neuroscientists come
up with a magic pill that keeps
the brain healthy while ageing.
The question remains still what
consequences this will have on
society in the future.