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Cardiff University scientist leads new £1.3 million Alzheimer’s study

24 October 2007

Embargoed until Wednesday 24 October 00.01am

The genetics underlying late-onset Alzheimer's disease could be revealed thanks to a new study led by a Cardiff University scientist who has been awarded a £1.3M grant from the Wellcome Trust for the research.

Professor Julie Williams of the School of Medicine will lead a team of UK experts studying DNA samples taken from 14,000 people worldwide in search of the genes that not only predispose people to Alzheimer’s, but which can protect them from developing the disease too.

The researchers will use a powerful screening technique called ‘genome-wide association’ scanning to analyse the DNA samples, the first 1000 of which will come from participants in Wales.

Professor Williams said: "Alzheimer's is a genetically-complicated story involving many genes, so we need large sample sizes to make sure any genetic links that we find are not mere coincidence. With access to 14,000 DNA samples, this is the largest genetic study ever to look at Alzheimer's and will undoubtedly produce some valuable insights into what causes this devastating illness."

According to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, there are over 700,000 people currently living in the UK with dementia, of which Alzheimer's is the most common form. This figure is expected to double within the next twenty years.

The new study will take DNA samples from 6,000 people with late-onset Alzheimer's disease and 8,000 healthy "control" samples from Britain and America to identify common genetic variations that increase the risk of the disease.

"It's very likely that we will find some unexpected associations" said Professor Williams. "We know already that certain genes are involved in more than one form of dementia and that even genes that affect cholesterol level can be a risk factor for Alzheimer's. We need to build a complete picture of the different pathways that lead to the disease. With this knowledge, we should, in time, be able to derive tangible clinical benefits."

‘Genome-wide association’ involves studying 500,000 genetic markers across the human genome. Work on genotyping the DNA samples - in other words, screening for the particular genetic mutations that are linked to Alzheimer's disease - will be performed by Dr Panos Deloukas’s group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

"Alzheimer's disease is a major burden on our society and this burden will only increase as our population ages," said Professor Richard Morris, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, which is funding the study. "It is essential that we develop our understanding of the underlying causes of the disease, and genome-wide association scans offer a powerful tool to do just this."

The project has been welcomed by Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust who said: "This is an exciting project that could lead to real progress in our understanding of Alzheimer’s."


Notes to Editors:

1. The School of Medicine is based at the Heath Park Campus, a site it shares the University Hospital of Wales, the third largest university hospital in the UK. It has an all-Wales role, contributing greatly to promoting, enhancing and protecting the nation’s health in partnership with the National Health Service (NHS) in Wales. The medical curriculum followed at the School enables students to acquire and apply knowledge, skills, judgement and attitudes appropriate to delivering a high standard of professional care. Around 300 new doctors currently graduate from the School every year and the Welsh Assembly Government has invested substantially in new teaching facilities to increase this number further. The School is an international leader in basic and clinically applied research activities and scored highly in the most recent Government Research Assessment Exercise. School of Medicine researchers annually win tens of millions of pounds in research awards to work with Government, the healthcare industries and the charitable sector on the most pressing issues of human health. The School has also been instrumental in establishing and running many important national research initiatives including the Wales Gene Park, Wales Cancer Bank, the Cardiff Institute for Tissue Engineering and Repair and the Healing Foundation UK Centre for Burns Research.

2. Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, the University today combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff is a member of the Russell Group of Britain’s leading research universities.

3. The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £500 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

4. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which receives the majority of its funding from the Wellcome Trust, was founded in 1992 as the focus for UK sequencing efforts. The Institute is responsible for the completion of the sequence of approximately one-third of the human genome as well as genomes of model organisms such as mouse and zebrafish, and more than 90 pathogen genomes. In October 2005, new funding was awarded by the Wellcome Trust to enable the Institute to build on its world-class scientific achievements and exploit the wealth of genome data now available to answer important questions about health and disease. These programmes are built around a Faculty of more than 30 senior researchers. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is based in Hinxton, Cambridge, UK.

5. The Alzheimer’s Research Trust is the UK’s leading dementia research charity. The charity funds world-class research to fund ways to cure, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

Further Information:

For more information or to arrange an interview:

Professor Julie Williams
School of Medicine
Tel: 02920 743247
Mobile: 07968 267447

Victoria Dando
Public Relations
Tel: 02920 879074