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Interview with Professor Bart De Strooper

Date: 
23 July 2018

 

Bart De Strooper Professor Bart De Strooper is a world-renowned researcher in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease who has focused on understanding the fundamental mechanisms that underlie these neurodegenerative disorders. He is the recipient of several prestigious prizes in recognition of his work. Since December 2016, Professor De Strooper is Director of the national UK Dementia Research Institute, based at the institute’s hub at University College London.

 
Earlier this year, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it is pulling out of neuroscience research. You reacted to this decision in The Guardian. For those who did not read the article, could you in short describe your thoughts on Pfizer’s decision?

I find it disappointing that a big pharma company like Pfizer pulls out and decides to sit at the side and watch how others will solve the huge problem of dementia. I always believed that these big companies are not only here to make massive profits but also have a mission to find cures for major health problems and to take the risks associated with that. Dementia is probably the area of biggest unmet medical need. So, while I understand that they do not wish to continue investing in unpromising lines of research, I would expect at least a clear engagement from such big player to increase their investments in fundamental research trying to identify other and better drug targets than the ones they tested until now.

 
What made you decide to specialise in the research and treatment of dementia?

As a young MD I was looking for an interesting and not yet covered medical problem. After my PhD, my attention for Alzheimer’s disease was raised by one of my mentors, Prof. Fred Van Leuven, a professor in chemistry at the University of Leuven (coincidence that both names are identical). I thought that this disease was exactly what I wanted to study: combining neuroscience with an important health problem. The longer I am in the field, the more my interest is moving from the fundamental aspects towards the finding of therapies. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that we need to get a better grip on the fundamentals before we will really find cures for dementia.

 
You have held impressive positions at the KU Leuven before moving to the UK. What has this move meant to you, both on a professional and personal level?

I have been claiming that research in dementia is underfunded for decades now. The ambitious project from MRC, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK to bring together £250 million to start an institute entirely devoted to dementia research was like a dream come true. When researchers in the UK contacted me to tell me about the opportunity, I was keen to apply for this position and make a major switch in my career. At the moment it is hard work to establish a national institute from scratch. I try to keep a few of my more promising research lines active with my group in Leuven, while I am in the UK setting up the institute. The result is that I am working harder than ever, close to 80 hours a week. Luckily my children are now grown up and my wife is also very busy as a successful family doctor. So, basically, I have a double full time job but one which is my passion and hobby and therefore not a real burden.

 
Lots of money and effort has already been invested in understanding and tackling dementia, yet no effective treatment has yet been found. Do you believe that ultimately we will be able to beat the devastating disease? What’s your predicted time span?

The effort in dementia research has been only a fraction of the effort spent on other areas such as cancer research, so not surprisingly we lag behind with treatments. On top of this, the brain is the most complex organ. I estimate that we know approximately 15 times less about dementia than cancer. So my answer is: yes we will find cures for dementia but the time needed will largely depend on how much effort the world wants to spend to this problem. The good news is that budgets are increasing and I hope that a good chunk of that money is going to be invested in the area where breakthroughs have to come from, i.e. the basic science that is needed to crack the fundamental processes underlying the diseases that lead to dementia.   

 
You often read about the importance of early testing if there is dementia concern but if there is yet no cure, what is the point of early diagnosis?

At this moment, this helps the researchers to define the initial phase of the disease. We need to understand what the first problems are and when they arise. We learned for instance that the biochemical alterations in patients start 20-30 years before the disease manifests itself as dementia. We need to understand what is going on in the brain and how the brain is capable to operate normally while these changes occur. We need to target those processes if we want to make the most effective treatments. Later on the diagnostic tools will help to make early diagnosis and provide the possibility to prevent dementia by giving treatments very early on.

 
Do you anticipate that Brexit will have an effect on your research?

It’s still unclear how Brexit will come to reality – but regardless we will find ways to recruit and retain the best researchers at the UK DRI and provide the resources they need. As you know, international collaboration is the essence of the scientific enterprise.  Alzheimer’s disease and all the related neurodegenerative disorders constitute a huge, worldwide challenge and no single country has enough talent and scientific force to do it all. So I hope Brexit will not affect our research and we can keep our intense scientific collaborations and exchanges with the continent intact.

 
Are you in touch with other Belgian expats in the UK?

Of course, there are quite a lot of excellent academic colleagues here, it is a real pleasure to see how they have taken up influential academic positions and to learn how welcome they feel and how well they got integrated here.

 
Can you compare living and working in Belgium and the UK?

I am staying in London most of my time, so that is completely different from any place in Belgium. I also have the impression that the rest of the UK is quite different from London – and I have the privilege of being able to visit and work closely with our UK DRI centres in many fantastic cities: Cambridge, Cardiff and Edinburgh as well as London. I love the UK in general, but I deeply enjoy living in such a cosmopolitan city as London.

 
What are your future aspirations?

Getting treatments and cures for the many neurodegenerative disorders. In the short time, I want to get this beautiful institute operational with the help of my close colleague Dr. Adrian Ivinson and the great team that surrounds us now, and to see the UK Dementia Research Institute providing worldwide leadership as we try to conquer dementia. I also hope to make a bridge between dementia research in the UK and the excellent work that is done in Leuven.