Neurodegenerative diseases and dementia
Neurodegenerative diseases are incurable and debilitating conditions that result in progressive degeneration or death of nerve cells. They include Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, motor neurone disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and multiple sclerosis. Of these, the dementias are responsible for the greatest burden of disease, with Alzheimer’s disease representing over 60-70% of the cases.
Neurodegenerative diseases are strongly linked with age, and the UK and other European countries have an increasingly ageing population. Currently 16% of the European population is over 65, with this figure expected to reach 25% by 2030. In the UK it has been estimated that dementia alone costs the economy £17 billion a year.
MRC Dementias initiatives
In November 2015 the MRC announced the UK Dementia Research Institute which will lead the UK dementias research efforts and is aimed at transforming treatment and care as well as leading the way in risk reduction strategies for future generations. A further £100M jointly from Alzheimer's Society and Alzheimer's Research UK announced in May 2016 brings the total investment in the Institute up to £250M. The UK Dementia Research Institute will bring together world-leading expertise in biomedical, care, public health and translational dementia research.
In 2014, the MRC launched the landmark Dementias Platform UK under our ‘Stratified Medicine for Patient Benefit’ initiative on age-related neurodegenerative disease and the dementias. The £53M industry-partnered platform is based around the UK’s strength in cohort studies. The platform is furthering our understanding of neurodegenerative disease progression and will build the basis for future intervention studies.
Our activity in neurodegenerative disease research extends beyond the UK, with the MRC leading the development of two international collaborations. The Joint Programming in Neurodegenerative Disease (JPND) and the Centres of Excellence Network (CoEN) initiatives are pooling resources from the UK and other countries across Europe and North America to build collaborative, cross-border research activity in neurodegeneration.
The EU Joint Programme in Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND)
We are a leading partner in a European strategy aimed at coordinating national efforts in neurodegenerative research across the biomedical and social spectrum. The initiative is being conducted through a ‘joint programming’ approach between 30 participating member states. Launched in April 2010, JPND aims to increase coordinated investment between participating countries in research aimed at finding causes, developing cures, and identifying appropriate ways to care for people who have neurodegenerative disease.
Developed under MRC leadership, the JPND research strategy for neurodegenerative diseases encompasses basic, clinical and health and social care research in 2012. The JPND partners are implementing this agenda by proposing innovative ways of pooling expertise and resources to address the fragmentation and duplication of current research efforts across Europe. Implementation includes both calls for proposals and other forms of transnational collaborative activity such as:
- the JPND 2017 Global Cohort Portal for longitudinal cohort studies;
- an interactive portal for experimental models to study neurodegeneration;
- 2016 Mapping of research across JPND countries for comparison with 2011 data
- the promotion of Health and Social Care research;
- engagement with industry and the Innovative Medicines Initiative programmes.
A new version of the research strategy known as the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) is due to be published in 2018.
Since 2011 MRC has provided £6m to fund UK participation in 16 transnational JPND projects, with national funding enhanced by European Commission contributions:
- 2011: Optimisation of biomarkers and harmonisation of their use
- 2013: Genetic, epigenetic and environmental risk and protective factors
- 2015: JPcofuND triple call on Risk and Protective Factors, Animal and Cell Models and Longitudinal Cohorts
In 2014 and 2016, additional JPND awards were made to support expert Working Groups in areas where methodological and structural alignment could be guided through the publication of guidelines and position papers. For each call MRC funded one of the ten €50k (£40k) JPND awards:
- 2014: Longitudinal cohort approaches in neurodegenerative diseases.
These awards enabled leading scientists in the field to develop frameworks and guidelines for the community, in order to enhance the use of existing longitudinal cohort studies for neurodegenerative disease research. Reports from this work are now available on the JPND website.
- 2016: Harmonisation and Alignment in Brain Imaging Methods
These Working Groups will address the methodological challenges facing different imaging modalities for a range of neurodegenerative diseases, among them MRI, PET, ultrasound, MEG and EEG, as well as multimodal approaches. For further information on UK participation in the working group awards see JPND 2016 Call for Working Groups.
Centres of Excellence Network in Neurodegeneration (CoEN)
MRC is a founding partner of CoEN, an international initiative launched in 2010 involving national research funders in the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Flanders, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Slovak Republic and Spain. The initiative links established Centres of Excellence to undertake collaborative neurodegeneration research.
The overall aim of the initiative is to build collaborative, cross-border research activity in neurodegeneration, focusing on adding value to the expertise and critical mass already established within national Centres of Excellence. A long-term goal of CoEN is to provide a mechanism for industry to link to these Centres of Excellence to develop novel and effective industry-academic partnerships in pre-competitive research. CoEN is aligned with the broader JPND, although it operates as an independent entity.
The CoEN ‘Pathfinder’ scheme is distinct from other neurodegeneration transnational funding calls such as JPND and Innovative Medicines Initiative, and for many countries distinct from national grant schemes. Pathfinder calls set out to encourage the community to think ‘outside the box’, to stimulate new and unconventional approaches and creative solutions to the challenges of neurodegeneration research by undertaking high-risk/ high-payoff projects.
The 2017 CoEN Pathfinder call for proposals has been launched by seven of the nine CoEN partners. Further information can be found on the CoEN website.
Since 2011 MRC has provided £2.5m to fund UK participation in 14 of the 24 transnational CoEN projects.
Details of the 2015 CoEN awards can be found on our news pages: New funding for international cooperation between Centres of Excellence in neurodegenerative disease research
Further details of the initiative can be found on the CoEN website: www.coen.org/home.html
In 2014 the International Longevity Centre UK published a report on social stigma around dementia championed by MRC together with Alzheimer's Research UK and the Alzheimer's Society and supported by Pfizer. This report looks at stigma from different perspectives and shines a light on the impact that the fear around dementia has on those living with the condition, their families and carers. Stigma around dementia prevents the research community from capturing a full picture of the disease and is in itself a little-researched area. The report provides a unique and joined-up focus on the topic.
Vascular ageing and neurodegenerative diseases are two of the leading health challenges faced by our society, yet there are significant knowledge gaps in current understanding of the biology of ageing as it relates to the central nervous system (CNS), particularly about the interplay between the vasculature and neuronal systems at the mechanistic level.
Research in prion and prion-related diseases
Prion diseases (also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy) are diseases of the brain and nervous system which gradually destroy brain tissues, giving it a characteristic sponge-like appearance under a microscope. Prion disease in humans is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). There are several forms of CJD in humans, the most common being sporadic CJD, which affects mostly middle-aged or elderly people. The variant CJD (vCJD) affects mostly young adults.
The first joint human and animal health transmissible spongiform encephalopathy research strategy in the UK (PDF, 1.46MB) was published in 2005 by the TSE Research and Development Joint Funders’ Co-ordination Group (Department of Health, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Food Standards Agency, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council) and a further updated supplement was published in 2011 (PDF, 450KB).
We fund innovative prion and prion-related diseases research groups in universities and hospitals throughout the UK. In addition, the MRC has a unit that focuses principally on prion research – the MRC Prion Unit, University College London. Set up in 1998 to create an international centre of excellence, the unit provides a crucial role in bridging the interface between basic science and clinical research.