Two Academy Fellows have been awarded the 2018 Brain Prize, the world’s most valuable prize for brain research. Professor Michel Goedert FRS FMedSci and Professor John Hardy FRS FMedSci, along with Professor Christian Haass and Professor Bart De Strooper, have been presented with this prestigious prize for their ground-breaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Professor Michel Goedert FRS FMedSci is a Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and an Honorary Professor at Cambridge University. His work using human brain tissues, transgenic mice, cultured cells and purified proteins was instrumental in the discovery – despite considerable initial scepticism – of the importance of Tau protein for Alzheimer’s disease. When Tau acts abnormally, it assembles into clusters of filaments and becomes insoluble. A pathological pathway leading from soluble to insoluble filamentous Tau is believed to cause neurodegeneration. Different Tau filaments are associated with distinct neurodegenerative diseases, including Pick’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy, where Tau filaments form in the absence of beta-amyloid deposits outside brain cells.
In his more recent studies, he showed that filamentous Tau clusters can propagate along nerve cell pathways through self-seeding. “Eventually – perhaps decades after seed formation – the first disease symptoms appear”, said Professor Goedert. “Therefore, if you can halt propagation, that could lead to ways to prevent and treat disease.”
Geneticist Professor John Hardy FRS FMedSci is Chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at the Institute of Neurology, University College London. After finding mutations in the gene for the protein, amyloid, in a family with early onset disease he proposed a ground-breaking ‘amyloid hypothesis’ for Alzheimer’s disease suggesting that disease was initiated by the build-up of this protein in the brain. The disease progresses when there is an imbalance in the production and the clearance of amyloid. His discoveries of genetic mutations have had a dramatic impact on understanding not only Alzheimer’s disease but more recently in other neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy and motor neuron disease. With his collaborators, their development of transgenic mice that mimic these diseases process has provided the foundation of clinical trials for drugs to treat these complex diseases.
“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,” said Professor Hardy.
His work on Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias and Parkinson’s disease is amongst the most highly cited in neuroscience.
This year’s award represents an array of European countries: UK, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. All four neuroscientists were honoured – and surprised - to receive the 2018 Brain Prize and said how important Alzheimer’s research is in the vastly diverse field of neuroscience.
“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,” said Professor Goedert.
Professor Hardy said, “In the early 1980s, research into Alzheimer’s disease was a real backwater. The first conference only attracted 40 people, but now thousands attend. The pace of knowledge is very fast and the quality of science is excellent. Finding out about the interactions of the different types of cells in the brain is fundamental to our understanding of how the brain works.”
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 these four European scientists 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. Alzheimer’s disease 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. It is among the hardest diseases to get a grip on despite dramatic progress over the last decades. This year’s Brain Prize winners have individually and together, made essential contributions to the genetic and molecular knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease which are the foundations for finding new ways to diagnose, treat and possibly even prevent it and other devastating diseases of the ageing brain.
The Academy of Medical Sciences is convening a novel scientific meeting on the developing brain over two days in early 2019. Click here to find out more.