Home » Academic life

Johnians at helm of new £50 million research centre

A research centre that will pioneer new approaches to understand and treat neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases, motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia has been launched in Cambridge, with backing from Stephen Hawking, among others.

Professor Hawking, who has had motor neurone disease for over 50 years, said that the Centre for Misfolding Diseases had his “strongest support”, following its establishment to tackle some of the world’s most devastating diseases – including his own condition.

The Centre is being jointly led by Professor Christopher Dobson, Master of St John’s College, Cambridge, Professor Tuomas Knowles, a Fellow of St John’s, and Professor Michele Vendruscolo. All three are also based in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.

Many of the neurodegenerative diseases that the Centre will study are currently incurable and represent a huge burden for an ageing society. As well devastating the lives of those whom they affect and their families, they have the potential to cripple healthcare systems around them by incurring costs that already exceed those associated with cancer and heart conditions combined.

The Centre brings together leading researchers from across the full spectrum of scientific disciplines – spanning applied mathematics, engineering, physics, chemistry, biology and medicine – to study the molecular origins of neurodegenerative diseases. A central theme of its activities is the use of principles from the physical and chemical sciences to address these complex biological and medical problems. The understanding created through this distinctive approach enables novel therapeutic strategies to be established that go beyond the traditional approaches that have so far led to systematic failures in clinical trials.

The Centre’s significance has been underlined by the philanthropic support that has enabled its launch. Alongside government funds of over £17 million, gifts totalling more than £32 million have been made. The programme began when a gift of £20 million was made by Elan Corporation plc, led by Kelly Martin and Robert Ingram, to catalyse its creation. Earlier this year, Cambridge alumnus R. Derek Finlay donated £5 million to fund the completion of the Chemistry of Health Laboratory, within the Department of Chemistry, and establish state-of-the-art laboratories for the Centre within the new building.

Speaking about the work of the Centre, Professor Stephen Hawking said: 'I am very pleased to give my strongest support to the activities of this new Centre in its quest to define the molecular origins of these debilitating diseases. I hope the work that is carried out in the Centre will lead to the discovery of novel and effective therapeutic strategies.”

Professor Dobson said: “The tremendous level of financial support that we have received has given us the freedom and resources to attract to our Centre the best and brightest students and research fellows from around the world; experts in disciplines ranging from mathematics to medicine. It has enabled us to set up and develop a comprehensive and highly innovative programme of research in an area of scientific endeavour where progress has the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the world who are affected, directly or indirectly, by the tragedy of neurodegenerative disease.”

The Centre’s research environment will provide an ideal setting not just for scientists based in Cambridge but also for hosting internationally leading researchers at all stages of their careers, ensuring that cutting-edge research will continue to be carried out in this vital area in the long term.

The overall vision underpinning the Chemistry of Health Laboratory, and the Centre for Misfolding Diseases within it, is that the investigations into the fundamental basis of disease will be carried out in an environment that fosters cross-fertilisation between academic and industrial research efforts, accelerating the road from basic discoveries to effective therapies.

In addition to fundamental science, the new building will house a Chemistry of Health Incubator that will respond to the need for closer integration between the University and industry and aim to increase the rate at which scientific breakthroughs are translated into new therapies. The incubator will provide the resources and complementary know-how required to ensure that fundamental research is ultimately used to develop new treatments for patients in this area where there is a tremendous unmet need.

Recent St John's College Research Fellow Dr Samuel Cohen played a key role in developing the concept for the incubator and will be closely involved in overseeing its progress, placing the College at the forefront of this entrepreneurial activity within the University. Dr Cohen also runs Wren Therapeutics, a University spin-out company which he and other members of St John's created last year to develop new drugs for Alzheimer's and other diseases.

Professor Vendruscolo said: “The failure so far of traditional drug discovery programmes for these diseases provides us with a strong indication that new strategies are needed. By building on our understanding of the fundamental processes underlying neurodegeneration and on the methods that we are developing for characterising them in a highly quantitative manner, we are creating novel routes and opportunities to introduce effective therapies.”

Professor Knowles said: “We are increasingly accessing a picture of how molecular malfunction can lead to disease, with the aim of working towards intervening where it matters the most.”

Stephen Hill, Chairman of the Alzheimer’s Society (and an alumnus of St John’s), added: "I am delighted to welcome such an important and exciting development in the fight against some of the most damaging and debilitating diseases that we face as a society today. Across the world there are 40 million people who suffer from Alzheimer’s – a number projected to rise to 135 million by 2050. It is only through the research efforts of centres of excellence such as this that we can have any hope that these diseases will not blight the lives of so many in the future.”

Click here for more information about the Centre.