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Alzheimer’s researchers win world’s top brain research prize

5 Mar 2018

The 2018 Brain Prize is being awarded to four neuroscientists for their groundbreaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease. Three of the four have received funding support from the MRC during their careers; Professors Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert and John Hardy share the award with Professor Christian Haass. 

The Brain Prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is worth one million Euros. Awarded annually, it recognises one or more international scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.

The research pioneered by this year’s winners has revolutionised our understanding of the changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer´s disease and related types of dementias. Around 10 million people in Europe have Alzheimer’s disease. This and other neurodegenerative diseases of the ageing brain cause a great deal of suffering for patients and their families and are a huge challenge for society.

The chairman of the Lundbeck Foundation Brain Prize selection committee, Professor Anders Björklund, commented: “These four outstanding European scientists have been rewarded for their fundamental discoveries unravelling molecular and genetic causes of the disease that have provided a basis for the current attempts to diagnose, treat and possibly even prevent neurodegenerative brain diseases.”

Bart De Strooper is the Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, of which the MRC is a founding funder, and Professor of Molecular Medicine at KU Leuven and VIB, Belgium where he carried out the research that earned him his share of the Brain Prize. He discovered that the protein presenilin cuts other proteins into smaller pieces, which is an important process in the communication between cells. He found that mutations in the presenilin genes lead to the production of abnormal amyloid, which is the main constituent of the plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

On hearing of his award, Bart commented: “The Brain Prize recognises that basic science makes a real contribution, even though much of it cannot be directly applied to clinical care. The Prize is an important sign for young scientists to know that they can still make big discoveries, and that we urgently need them to pursue research into diseases of the ageing brain.”

Michel Goedert is a Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and an Honorary Professor at Cambridge University. Upon winning the award, he said: “At a time when there is disappointment about the lack of an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, it seems clear that we need to have a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of disease.”

Michel’s work using human brain tissues, transgenic mice, cultured cells and purified proteins was instrumental in the discovery of the importance of Tau protein for Alzheimer’s disease.

John Hardy is UK Dementia Research Institute professor at University College London (UCL) and Chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at the Institute of Neurology, UCL. After finding mutations in the gene for the protein amyloid in a family with early onset disease, he proposed a ground-breaking hypothesis suggesting that Alzheimer’s disease was initiated by the build-up of this protein in the brain.

He said: “Collaborating with clinicians, geneticists and cell biologists is work in progress. Although we have not found a successful treatment yet, I believe we are on the way towards rational, mechanism-based treatments.”

Christian Haass is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich and at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Disorders. Responding to news of the award, he said: “We are facing a time when more and more people don’t believe in science anymore. Science is not always right, but it is the only way to go to find the truth and for humans to progress. The Brain Prize is an ambassador for science and puts a spotlight on great discoveries.”

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