Dr Julien Licchesi and Dr Rob Williams, from the University's Department of Biology & Biochemistry, are welcoming over £25,000 of funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK, the country’s leading dementia research charity. The new boost to dementia research in the South West will allow the research team to probe the biological causes of nerve cell damage in Alzheimer’s disease and illuminate new targets for treatments.
Over 84,000 people in the South West are living with dementia, a condition associated with memory and thinking difficulties, problems with communication and behavioural changes. With this figure set to rise to one million by 2025, alongside growing strain on informal carers, it is vital that researchers uncover ways to treat the underlying brain diseases that cause dementia.
Cellular waste disposal system
The new research project, getting underway this month, will focus on the “waste disposal machinery” present in the nerve cells of the brain. When a protein inside the cell is no longer required, or has been made incorrectly and must be destroyed, it is tagged with a small protein called ubiquitin. Ubiquitin acts as a red flag, signalling to the cell’s waste disposal system that the tagged protein must be broken down.
In Alzheimer’s, researchers believe this waste disposal system is less efficient, causing the build-up of toxic proteins which ultimately lead to nerve cell death. In this one-year study, Dr Licchesi and Dr Williams will combine their respective expertise in ubiquitin signalling and Alzheimer’s research to unravel the function of the waste disposal machinery of nerve cells.
Dr Julien Licchesi, Lecturer in Cellular Biochemistry, said: “Alzheimer’s is characterised by the build-up of toxic proteins in the brain, with clumps of proteins called amyloid and tau acting as hallmarks of the disease. I want to take a step back and look at how the cell’s mechanism for dealing with waste proteins changes in Alzheimer’s.
“In Alzheimer’s, abnormal ubiquitin molecules form damaging chains with knock-on consequences for waste disposal and nerve cell health. This funding boost will help us to unravel how these chains are assembled and potentially how this damaging process could be stopped. As the treatments that exist for Alzheimer’s don’t halt the spread of damage through the brain, it is essential that we understand the fundamental steps that lead to nerve cell death to inform new treatment approaches.
“This is an exciting time to be defining how nerve cells deal with their waste as a number of pharmaceutical companies view this as a potentially important target for the development of new therapies for dementia. Our long-term goal is to identify new ways to maintain or reactivate the waste disposal system of nerve cells in the ageing brain and in particular in patients with dementias such as Alzheimer’s”.
Greatest medical challenge
Dr Laura Phipps, Science Communications Manager at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Dementia is our greatest medical challenge, with 850,000 people in the UK living with the condition, including 2,600 in Bath alone. Dementia is not an inevitable part of growing old, it is caused by brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s – diseases we can tackle with research. Dr Licchesi will bring a wealth of expertise from his previous focus on cancer biology and use this knowledge to uncover new ways of tackling dementia. Alzheimer’s Research UK is committed to funding pioneering research that will reveal new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent the diseases that cause dementia, taking us closer to a world free from the heartbreak of the condition.”
The project is an example of the world-leading research from the University of Bath. 85 per cent of the University’s Biological Sciences research was judged as world-leading or internationally excellent in the recent independently-assessed Research Excellence Framework 2014.