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Cardiff experts call for Alzheimer’s action

26 March 2009

Professor Julie WilliamsProfessor Julie Williams

Cardiff experts have been at the forefront of calls to step up the battle against Alzheimer’s Disease in the press and on national television following a leading international conference on the disease.

Professor John Harwood, Head of the School of Biosciences and Professor Julie Williams, School of Medicine both spoke at the Alzheimer’s Research Trust’s recent annual conference – the largest-ever gathering of dementia researchers in the UK.

Currently around 700,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia, 60 per cent of whom have Alzheimer’s. If present trends continue, their numbers could rise to 1.4M in the next 30 years. The overall cost of dementia to the UK economy, including medicines, care and loss of employment, is expected to rise from £17bn a year to £50bn.

Professor Williams introduced the press conference at which a number of leading researchers spoke on the need for more research and on the progress currently being made.

John Harwood, Head of the School of Biosciences, spoke of his own research, which is carried out in collaboration with Professor Mark Good (School of Psychology), into dietary treatments. The researchers repeated the call for urgent action in this field area, given Britain’s ageing population. Professor Harwood pointed out that current drugs have a "modest effect" on symptoms and added: "They also have a limited effect over time so after six months to a year they stop being of significant benefit."

ITV’s Tonight show carried an interview with Professor Julie Williams (pictured), of the School of Medicine, in which she called for more research into the degenerative brain disease. At Cardiff, Professor Williams is leading one of the world’s largest experiments on the genetic causes of Alzheimer’s, involving some 25,000 people worldwide.

The programme featured Inspector Morse star Kevin Whately, whose mother has Alzheimer’s, finding out more about the disease. Professor Williams, who is chief scientific adviser to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said that future trends made the need for research all the more important. She pointed out that while Britain is currently facing a credit crunch, there could be a future "dementia crunch" in which costs of care triple.

Professor Williams said this week: "This is a pivotal time in Alzheimer’s research. We still do not understand all the causes of the most common form of the Disease. Over the next five years, we anticipate a half dozen new risk genes will be identified. This will help pinpoint exactly what is going wrong in the brain and design treatments which focus directly on those faults.

"However, it is vital that we do this intensively over the next five years. It will take around 15 years to translate research into clinical treatments – just as the number of patients is climbing dramatically. I would say we need at least a tripling of resources in Alzheimer’s Research, bringing more bright young researchers into the field."

Professor Williams has recently been appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK’s leading dementia research charity, the Alzheimer’s Research Trust.
Rebecca Wood, the Alzheimer’s Research Trust’s Chief Executive, hailed the involvement of the two Cardiff scientists: "The annual conference is one of the charity’s key dates in the calendar, not only for bringing together the latest research from the UK’s leading dementia scientists, but also for raising the profile of the condition with the public. Both Professor Williams and Professor Harwood have appeared in the national media helping to reach millions with the crucial message that more dementia research is needed."

Professor Williams’ group is presently looking for new risk genes for Alzheimer’s and expects to be able to announce some positive news by the summer. The team is also exploring the relationship between genes and lifestyle, and how this could contribute to the development of the disease.

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