Cambridge co-hosts £250m dementia research hub as scientists find possible neurodegeneration treatment

MRC Giovanna Mallucci

Cambridge scientists believe they have identified a potential means to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Their breakthrough coincides with the announcement of a new £250 million UK Dementia Research Institute to be part-based in the world-class science and technology cluster.

Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who led the Leicester-based research team and is now anchored at the University of Cambridge, is one of the five associate directors of the new UK Dementia Research Institute.

Her team, which had earlier identified a major pathway that leads to brain cell death in mice, have now found two repurposed drugs that block the pathway and prevent neurodegeneration. The drugs caused minimal side effects in the mice and one is already licensed for use in humans so is ready for clinical trials.

“We could know in 2-3 years whether this approach can slow down disease progression, which would be a very exciting first step in treating Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” she said.

The research was funded by the MRC and Professor Mallucci was also backed by a grant from Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

The drugs they identified that restored protein production rates in mice were trazodone hydrochloride, a licensed antidepressant, and dibenzoylmethane, a compound being trialled as an anti-cancer drug. 

Both drugs prevented the emergence of signs of brain cell damage in most of the prion-diseased mice and restored memory in the FTD mice. In both mouse models, the drugs reduced brain shrinkage which is a feature of neurodegenerative disease.

Professor Mallucci said: “We know that trazodone is safe to use in humans, so a clinical trial is now possible to test whether the protective effects of the drug we see on brain cells in mice with neurodegeneration also applies to people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

“We could know in 2-3 years whether this approach can slow down disease progression, which would be a very exciting first step in treating these disorders. Interestingly, trazodone has been used to treat the symptoms of patients in later stages of dementia, so we know it is safe for this group. We now need to find out whether giving the drug to patients at an early stage could help arrest or slow down the disease through its effects on this pathway.”

The breakthrough coincides with the the University of Cambridge being unveiled as one of the centres that will form the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) alongside Cardiff University, the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and King’s College London.

The UK DRI is a joint £250 million investment into dementia research led by the Medical Research Council alongside founding charity partners Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Established in response to the Government’s 2020 Challenge on Dementia, the DRI’s mission is to find new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent and care for people with dementias – a group of neurodegenerative disorders which include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Each centre will be led by an associate director and up to four programme leaders who will lead the centre’s foundation programmes. The centres have been awarded a total of 20 professorships and seven fellowships in the foundation phase, to build momentum in the institute.

The centres have a biomedical focus, and care research will also be integrated into the institute next year.

The Cambridge centre will be led by Professor Mallucci, who added: “We are very excited about the opportunity for Cambridge to be part of the UK DRI. Our centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus will focus on interdisciplinary science, building on our University’s strengths across research areas from chemistry and biophysics through to cell biology of neurodegeneration.”

Science Minister Jo Johnson added: “Dementia affects millions of people around the world but through greater understanding we can make significant steps forward to improve lives. Today’s announcement of the institute’s centre locations demonstrates the UK’s existing wealth of knowledge and research expertise, and the leadership role we can take in developing new treatments to tackle this disease.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Giovanna in her lab at the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester. Image courtesy – Medical Research Council

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