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Impressive research into Alzheimers underway at UWE

University of West of England

The Foundation is committed to supporting both research into Alzheimers and organisations giving practical help  for those suffering from the disease and their caring families. In 2018 we found Brace, a charity in Bristol, with a good record of research into dementia. After much discussion with them we decided to support the research work being undertaken by Professor Myra Conway and her team at the University of West of England. They were in need of specialist kit and the trustees agreed to make a grant of £6,434 to cover the cost. We visited UWE in June  and were impressed by the work being undertaken by Myra and her team. We asked Myra to explain what her research is all about and what she wants to achieve. This is what Myra and her team had to say.

Professor Myra Conway with Josie Allen and Lauren Ward

“Dementia which is the broad term to describe a chronic loss in cognition that impacts the individual’s ability to think or carry out their normal daily functions, where Alzheimer’s disease (AD) reflects about 64% of cases.  The number of people in the world with dementia is expected to increase from 50 million in 2018 to 115 million in 2050.  The cost of dementia is expected to double over the next 20 years from £26 billion to £55 billion.  Approximately 850 000 people suffer from dementia in the UK, where 225 000 will develop dementia this year, that is one every three minutes.

Kieran Boyd using the specialist power pack kit

Whilst the incidence of dementia increases with age there are over 42,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK.  This is an incredibly debilitating disease, which increases with age and can present with a variety of symptoms such as memory loss, problems with reasoning or language.  When an individual receives a diagnosis of AD, they and their loved ones know that their life will change dramatically as the condition develops.  It can affect people in very different ways and the rate of change is very individual. 

Whilst some individuals with AD can continue to enjoy life for many years, they are aware that they will not be able to live independently.  Increasingly, individuals with AD become confused, which is frightening and often leads to paranoia, where the individual cannot distinguish between what is in their head and what those around are saying.  There is an overwhelming feeling of loss and a great sadness.  For the caregivers it can be just as painful watching the person they love disappear.  They are challenged on a daily basis with mood swings, keeping an eye on their movements and activities and not to mention the physical strain of caring for someone with AD.  This disease is unforgiving and relentless and it is of absolute importance that improved therapies and diagnostics are developed and it is only through research will this be realised.

Type II diabetes (T2D) is a global epidemic, and is linked to obesity and lack of exercise.  Together with insulin resistance, this condition results from an inability to correctly break down and utilise glucose (commonly know as sugar) from our diet.  Insulin is required to allow glucose to enter cells and in T2D, the body becomes unresponsive.  As a result the levels of glucose in blood remain high, which can cause damage to blood vessels and organs such as the brain.  Recent clinical and epidemiological studies show that those with T2D have a 50% risk of developing AD.  One of the earliest biochemical changes that occur in AD brain is a reduction in glucose utilisation and a build-up of fat deposits in affected brain regions.  The mechanisms that connect T2D and AD are not known but scientists believe it is related to high blood sugar or insulin resistance. 

In recent years, there has been increased interest into understanding how people with type 2 diabetes, have a more likely chance to develop Alzheimer’s later in life.  Our research group is currently working on understanding how small molecules, called proteins, change when going from health to disease.  Our aim is to understand how nutrients such as glucose and proteins control memory and learning, in particular when the levels are high as noted in pre-clinical or clinical AD.  This is very important in order to help with the development of more robust, tailored diagnosis and treatments.

Marcela Usmari Moraes, post graduate key member of the team

In order to investigate this, we use brain cell models, called neurons, to look at the levels of proteins under normal physiological conditions as well as under conditions, which mimic the diseased state such as high levels of sugars, for example. For that, we require a very specific set of equipment, which help us keep our samples for longer – proteins outside of cells are only happy in cold temperatures! Our new centrifuge allows us to quickly spin our samples at 4°C, so the proteins are not affected by the increase in temperature and we can accurately measure their levels in subsequent experiments. Not only that, but for these proteins to be identified and measured we also need a piece of equipment called a power pack – an equipment which puts an electric current through a gel to separate these proteins. And finally, with the help of a multichannel pipette we can also look at the impact of certain conditions on how brain cells behave and survive, which is very important considering cell death is what leads to most of the observable symptoms in Alzheimer’s disease.

Without the new equipment, it would take much longer to work through multiple sets of samples delaying outputs.  We have better accuracy using the multichannel pipette, which is also faster and more efficient.  Having this equipment means that we will be closer to getting answers, which will help with the development of new diagnostic tools and treatments for AD. This is very exciting news and we hope to keep contributing towards new advances in the medical research field, eventually reaching a point where we can, together, discover the source and develop a cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. “

The challenges caused by dementia are clearly huge. Without properly funded research and a commitment by government and the public to make meaningful progress the future for many people will continue to be bleak. That is why the Foundation is supporting Professor Conway’s research and why we will continue to make grants to great organisations tackling dementia.  Tangible progress needs to be delivered and give people hope. Please get behind this work. If you want to know more, Brace’s site is a great starting place.