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UK government names leaders of national dementia Mission

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The UK Government has named two leaders in dementia research to spearhead its ambitious national Mission to tackle dementia, launched in memory of the late Dame Barbara Windsor.

Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, and Nadeem Sarwar, currently a senior leader at Eisai, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, have been appointed co-chairs of the ‘Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission’ by an expert panel which included Dame Kate Bingham, who headed up the Vaccine Taskforce.

The ‘Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission’ was launched in August 2022, in honour of Dame Barbara and the millions of other people and their loved ones who have had their lives ruined by dementia. 

This national Mission aims to develop innovative research tools and boost the number and speed of clinical trials in dementia and neurodegeneration. This contributes to the commitment to double funding for dementia research to £160 million a year by 2024 to 2025.

The Mission forms one of eight Missions in the Government’s Life Sciences Vision and Drugs Strategy. These other Missions will also harness the power of the UK’s life sciences sector – which is Europe’s largest – to unlock new treatments and diagnosis for cancer, obesity, addiction and mental health problems.

Together, they will convene industry, the NHS, academia and families living with dementia, to tackle this devastating illness.

Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, and Nadeem Sarwar, senior leader at Eisai.

Announcing the appointments at the World Dementia Council Summit today (Monday 20 March) Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman said: “Dementia is an especially cruel condition for both patients and their loved ones; as Dame Barbara’s brave campaigning made powerfully clear for all. Breakthroughs in neuroscience like the Nobel Prize-winning work of John Gurdon and his team, combined with patient cohort studies and the integration of genomics, big data and clinical research offers hope of new diagnostics, treatments and cures.

“The UK is determined to help lead this by harnessing the power of the NHS as a research engine. That’s why as 1st UK Minister of Life Science we hosted the first G20 Dementia Summit in London, and launched the Dementia Research Institute and Dementia Research Fund. Patient engagement is key, which is why our new Dementia Mission is patient centred with a key role for dementia charities.

“Hilary and Nadeem will be instrumental in that, by driving this project in the spirit of Dame Barbara and all those desperate for hope of a cure. As cancer has become a treatable and increasingly curable disease in our lifetime, so too can dementia.”

One million people are predicted to be living with dementia by 2025, and 1.6 million by 2040. It is the leading cause of death in the UK. 

Up to 40 per cent of dementia cases are potentially preventable but causes are still poorly understood. Dementia can affect the brain years before people show any symptoms, which means treatments need to be tested on people far earlier.

The new national Mission will build on recent advances in biological and data sciences, including genomics, AI and the latest brain imaging technology, to test new treatments from a growing range of possible options. 

The Mission will work in partnership with industry and other key system partners and leverage the rich research ecosystem in the UK.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “Dementia is the leading cause of death in the UK but cutting edge research into new technologies that can help to detect and measure indicators of the condition has the potential to improve diagnosis, treatment and care – and today we’re taking another step forward to spearhead efforts into beating this disease and potentially help many people across the UK.

“Hilary Evans and Nadeem Sarwar will be crucial to accelerating the development of the latest treatments and technologies, as well as driving collaboration across partners in industry, the NHS, academia and people affected by dementia.”

Alzheimer’s Research UK is the largest charitable funder of dementia research in Europe. Hilary Evans, said: “I’m delighted to take on this vital role as co-chair of the UK’s Dementia Mission, alongside Nadeem. Over the last decade, I have developed partnerships with industry, academia and the NHS and will be ensuring that people with dementia are at the heart of this Mission. This significant initiative will drive forward progress in dementia research and bring us closer to a cure. 

“Dementia research has made great strides in recent years, but there is still important progress to be made on multiple fronts, and this needs effective collaboration across the whole dementia landscape.  From researchers, to regulatory bodies responsible for making sure patients can access safe and effective treatments without delay, and of course the NHS and research workforce. I look forward to working closely with Nadeem to make this happen, and help ensure the UK is at the forefront of dementia research for years to come.”

Professor Nadeem Sarwar added: “Driven by rapid and ongoing scientific advances, we have arrived at a true inflection in dementia research and innovation. We now have an unprecedented scientific foundation upon which to build, to deliver transformative solutions for people with and at risk of dementia.

“The UK – anchored by its world-class scientific ecosystem that intersects scalable human biology, health technology and data sciences – has the opportunity to serve as a global catalyst and help lead the fight against dementia. I am humbled, and inspired, therefore to serve as the Co-Chair of the UK Dementia Mission, and look forward to working with Hilary to help realise this vision.”

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Tai chi outperforms conventional exercise for seniors

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New findings from 12 studies involving 2,901 participants have demonstrated that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving mobility and balance in seniors.

While tai chi is understood to be beneficial for functional mobility and balance in older adults, such benefits are not well understood due to large variance in research study protocols and observations.

This new review and analysis has now shown that tai chi can induce greater improvement in functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults compared to conventional exercise.

The findings showed the following performance results:

  • The time to complete 50-foot walking was 1.84 seconds faster. 
  • The time to maintain a one-leg stance was 6 seconds longer when eyes were open and 1.65 seconds longer when eyes were closed. 
  • Individuals improved their timed-up-and-go test performance by 0.18 points, indicating quicker standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Individuals taking the functional reach test showed significant improvement with a standardised mean difference of 0.7, suggesting a noteworthy positive impact on the ability to reach and perform daily activities.

Secondary analyses revealed that the use of tai chi with relatively short duration of less than 20 weeks, low total time of less than 24 total hours, and/or focusing on the Yang-style of this ancient form of Chinese martial arts were particularly beneficial for functional mobility and balance as compared to conventional exercise.

“This systematic literature review and meta-analysis are exciting because they provide strong evidence that tai chi is a more efficient strategy to improve functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults, as compared to conventional exercise,” said Brad Manor, Ph.D., director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This research suggests that tai chi should be carefully considered in future studies and routines of rehabilitative programs for balance and mobility in older adults,” said Bao Dapeng, professor at Beijing Sport University.

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New standards for biomarkers of ageing

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A paper has put forward a new framework for standardising the development and validation of biomarkers of ageing to better predict longevity and quality of life.

Led by Harvard researchers, the team has zeroed in on biomarkers of ageing using omic data from population-based studies. 

The team included ageing and longevity expert Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of AI-driven drug discovery company Insilico Medicine, and the findings appeared in Nature Medicine

Ageing is associated with a number of biological changes including increased molecular and cellular damage, however, researchers do not yet have a standardised means to evaluate and validate biomarkers related to ageing. 

In order to create those standards as well as actionable clinical tools, the team analysed population-based cohort studies built on omic data (data related to biological molecules which can include proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, and epigenomics) of blood-based biomarkers of ageing. The researchers then compared the predictive strength of different biomarkers, including study design and data collection approaches, and looked at how these biomarkers presented in different populations. 

In order to better assess the impact of ageing using biomarkers, the researchers found that clinicians needed to expand their focus to consider not only mortality as an outcome, but also how biomarkers of aging are associated with numerous other health outcomes, including functional decline, frailty, chronic disease, and disability. They also call for the standardisation of omic data to improve reliability. 

“Omics and biomarkers harmonisation efforts, such as the Biolearn project, are instrumental in validation of biomarkers of aging” said co-first author Mahdi Moqri, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

Biolearn is an open-source project for biomarkers of aging and is helping to harmonise existing ageing biomarkers, unify public datasets, and provide computational methodologies.

The team also emphasised the importance of continued collaborations among research groups on “large-scale, longitudinal studies that can track long-term physiological changes and responses to therapeutics in diverse populations”, and that further work is required to understand how implementation of biomarker evaluation in clinical trials might improve patient quality of life and survival.

“If we hope to have clinical trials for interventions that extend healthy lifespan in humans, we need reliable, validated biomarkers of ageing,” said co-first author Jesse Poganik, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

“We hope that our framework will help prioritise the most promising biomarkers and provide health care providers with clinically valuable and actionable tools.”

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Healthy aging research to receive $115 million

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Global non-profit Hevolution Foundation has announced $115 million in funding that makes up 49 new awards under its Geroscience Research Opportunities (HF-GRO) programme.  

As part of Hevolution’s mission to catalyse the healthspan scientific ecosystem and drive transformative breakthroughs in healthy aging, HF-GRO is funding promising pre-clinical research in aging biology and geroscience. 

Through this first wave of HF-GRO awards, Hevolution will invest up to $115 million in this first cohort of 49 selected projects over the next five years. Its second call for proposals under HF-GRO will be announced later this year, offering an additional $115 million to address the significant funding gaps in aging research.  

Dr. Felipe Sierra, Hevolution’s Chief Scientific Officer stated: “These 49 important research projects represent a significant step forward in deepening our understanding of healthy aging. Hevolution’s prime objective is to mobilise greater investment around uncovering the foundational mechanisms behind biological aging. 

“We are steadfast in our belief that by examining the root causes of aging, rather than solely focusing on its associated diseases, we can usher in a brighter future for humanity.” 

HF-GRO awardees include researchers at prestigious institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Buck Institute, the Mayo Clinic, New York University, and the University of California San Francisco, among many others. 

The American Federation for Aging Research is providing programmatic support for the HF-GRO program, with grantees selected through a rigorous two-stage peer-review process involving 100 experts in aging biology and geroscience. 

Dr Berenice Benayoun, an HF-GRO grant recipient at the University of Southern California, stated: “I am extremely honored and excited that Hevolution selected our project for funding. This is a project close to my heart, which aims at understanding why and how the female and male innate immune aging differs. 

“This funding will support us as we start laying the foundation for a lasting improvement of women’s health throughout aging.” 

To date, Hevolution has committed approximately $250 million to transform the healthy aging sector, including the $40 million for specialised research and development in healthspan science recently announced at Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit. 

Hevolution is ramping up its investments to enable healthier aging for all and is now the second largest funder of aging biology research worldwide.  

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