Happy 5th Birthday to Defying Dementia

Defying Dementia header image taken from the Vintage Gala Dinner at Blackpool Winter Gardens 31/01 © KJH Photography

Defying Dementia is a well-established fundraising campaign that is working tirelessly to tackle the threat presented by Alzheimer’s disease. Funds raised for Defying Dementia by the local community and from charitable trusts are continuing to support the campaign’s pioneering research into these terrible diseases that affect so many lives.

We recently celebrated our fifth birthday with a Vintage Gala Dinner at Blackpool Winter Gardens. This was organised by Unique Homecare of Galgate and raised over £2500 for the campaign. The black-tie event was attended by over 120 guests and included a charity auction. The London band, Top Cat, entertained and were sponsored by Unique Homecare.

Since 2015, over £380,000 has been raised by the campaign and there are currently over 140 volunteer fundraisers, from individuals to local businesses and organisations including Lancaster City Council where the Mayor has chosen Defying Dementia as his charity of the year for 2019/20.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters we have been able to make a number of positive developments in the last year. The most exciting news is that we have been able to fund a full time Research Associate, Dr. Norah Ulzheimer to join our research team led by Professor David Allsop. The team are working on developing a drug to slow the progression of the disease in our labs on campus. Norah’s position was entirely funded through philanthropic donations and goes to show the real difference that community support can make to our campaign.

Here is an update of the work that Norah has been carrying out:

‘I have been developing a brain cell model to test our new 'tau inhibitor'. A tau inhibitor aims to prevent the development of tau protein tangles in the brain.’

As you can imagine, in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, many things aren’t quite as ‘they should be’. As with many diseases, areas in our body have changed and are now not functioning as before. In Alzheimer’s, one of the things that goes wrong is a protein called tau, which usually stabilizes microtubules; microtubules build networks in our cells. They act as the cell’s own transport system and allow ‘communication’ between cells and also function as a sort of skeleton to maintain cell shape.

In the brains of people living with Alzheimer’s, tau detaches from the network and builds aggregates, which are effectively big clumps of the protein. These clumps cause dysfunctions in the cell and impair the communication between cells. Our brains are made of a network of cells, all interlinked and ‘talking to each other’. When these links are interrupted, the brain cannot function properly. The goal is hence, to stop tau from forming aggregates and our lab has identified something that impedes this aggregation – an ‘inhibitor’.

Before we can think about actually treating people with such a drug [inhibitor] or any drug, we need to test it in models. This means we are trying to model the conditions of a human brain. I am working on brain cells, which are grown in a dish. To create a cell model, I am treating them with several ‘chemicals’ until they resemble brain cells in Alzheimer’s. This process has taken several weeks until the cell model was optimised, but it is now ready waiting for me to return to the lab. But we do not just need ideal cells, we also need the tau aggregates inside these cells to test our inhibitor. For this, I made some tau in our lab, which is then injected directly into the cells.

Half of the cells will be treated with our inhibitor and the other half won’t, so we can look at the difference between the two. There are tests that allow us to monitor tau aggregation in the treated and the untreated cells’.

Founder of the Defying Dementia campaign, Dr. Penny Foulds, described Norah’s recruitment as an important milestone:

Alzheimer’s is set to be the 21st century’s biggest killer, but research here at Lancaster University, funded though our Defying Dementia campaign may find a way to stop it in its tracks. We can now speed up the development of our drug, that will attack both the plaques and the tangles that form in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. We thank all of our supporters who enable us to continue with this important research’

In addition to research, part of Norah’s role involves public engagement. She has already attended a number of Defying Dementia events in the local community, including Defying Dementia Day in October.

We are incredibly grateful for all of the support we have received in the past 5 years and look forward to making more progress in the coming months.

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