Science

Cardiff University to spearhead multi-million pound worldwide study on Alzheimer’s disease

Cardiff University has, for some time, been at the forefront of research into the development, treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. A recently announced £6m project aims to maintain this leading status. With over one million participants across multiple continents, this global study is set to examine the influences of genetics and lifestyle choices in the development of the disease.

The project, led by Professor Julie Williams, Head of Neurodegeneration at Cardiff University School of Medicine’s Medical Research Council, the project will combine research and results from other large studies, including previous research from Cardiff University.

Professor Williams is recognised internationally for prior work on genetics such as the discovery of 21 susceptibility genes for Alzheimer’s, named by Time Magazine as one of the top 10 worldwide medical breakthroughs of 2009. Building atop the success of such Alzheimer’s work at Cardiff, this latest study focuses not only on treatment of the disease, but also prevention and risk-mitigation.

“The aim of our study is to harmonise the research of scientists studying the genetic risk of Alzheimer’s with the work of those studying the lifestyle influences, with the ultimate goal to creating more personalised treatments for the disease,” said Professor Williams, adding: “better yet, treatments that offset it altogether.”

Alzheimer’s affects over half a million people in the UK at any given time, and is the most common form of dementia, accounting for more than half of all cases. Around 5 per cent of these cases are early-onset sufferers: people who develop the condition before the age of 65. While the majority of the one million participants in this study are aged 65, some are younger for precisely this reason.

While there is little variety in age range, the sheer scale of this study will allow for a greater level of accuracy and reliability of analysis concerning causes and prevention methods. The disease currently has an annual government cost of approximately £23bn, but this figure, alongside the number of sufferers, is expected to double within a single generation making this study of combined factors one of vital importance.

Participants will be classified as ‘high-risk’ or ‘low-risk’ based on their perceived susceptibility to Alzheimer’s, a polygenic risk score determined through a combination of information regarding the individual’s genetics and lifestyle choices. The biomarker data which will be produced promises to further our understanding of precisely what factors influence the onset of the disease, early or otherwise.

Of particular interest to the research team is the pre-symptomatic phase and the possibility of opening early clinical trials on those believed to hold the required combination of factors without yet suffering from the disease itself. Through such trials, it may be possible to work on preventing Alzheimer’s disease from ever manifesting in those classified as ‘high-risk’.

The project has been funded by a number of large bodies, including the Medical Research Council, the EU Joint-Programme Neurodegenerative Disease Research, and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Dr Eric Karren, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, has expressed proud support of the study, stating: “This type of collaboration is crucial for driving research forward: it’s important to combine insights from different strands of research in order to gain a more complete understanding of Alzheimer’s”

In the words of Professor Julie Williams: “Put simply, this is a study large enough to get answers.”

 David Mason

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