Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, has funded three researchers from the University of Exeter to carry out projects aimed at finding new treatments, boosting early diagnosis, and understanding the disease’s causes.

The £370k grants are part of a wider a £3 million funding announcement that will help to accelerate effective treatments for dementia.

Over the last two decades, Alzheimer’s Research UK has provided funding worth over £3.1m to research at the University of Exeter, which is a major national hub for dementia science.

For one of the projects, Professor Katie Lunnon has been awarded £152k to support the groundbreaking work of PhD student Luke Weymouth. His work will help unpick exactly how certain forms of a gene called APOE can cause Alzheimer’s disease to develop, opening up potential new treatment and prevention avenues.

APOE makes a protein that keeps brain cells healthy. People carry two copies of APOE – one inherited from each parent – and it occurs in different forms, including a ‘high risk’ version called APOE4. Around one in four people inherit one copy of this, meaning they are three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Around one in 50 people inherit two copies of this high-risk form, and they are more than eight times more likely to develop the disease.

Last year, Hollywood actor Chris Hemsworth announced that he carries two copies of the high-risk version.

However, carrying the APOE4 form does not mean that a person will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease, and scientists don’t fully understand how the gene increases a person’s risk. But recent research from Exeter has shone a spotlight on a process called epigenetics.

Luke Weymouth, who will lead the project in Professor Lunnon’s lab, explains: “Epigenetics is one way our cells switch their genes on and off and involves adding or removing chemical tags on sections of their DNA. This process can sometimes misfire and cause diseases to develop, such as cancer.”

Recent findings from Professor Lunnon’s lab suggest that the high-risk version of APOE is susceptible to having these chemical tags added to it in a way that stops it from working properly. This impacts the brain’s ability to clear away amyloid protein, causing it to build-up and damage nerve cells. Weymouth’s project will aim to work out if this happens in Alzheimer’s disease.

He continues: “I’m very grateful to Alzheimer’s Research UK for funding my PhD so I can build on the lab’s important findings. Epigenetic changes are reversible, so if we can understand these processes, they can potentially be modified by drugs or even by changing our behaviours. This could help us design new treatments and prevention strategies for people with the APOE risk gene, which is an incredibly exciting prospect.”

Other funding given to Exeter University researchers included £148k for Professor Wendy Noble to develop new drugs that target a key protein called tau, which also builds up in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease develops.

And in a third project, Dr Emma Dempster has received £68k to research molecular signals that emerge in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and could ultimately form the basis of a test to detect the disease before symptoms start to affect people’s lives.

Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Strategic Initiatives at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “We are delighted to announce the funding of three new projects at the University of Exeter. At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we are focused on finding new ways to treat, detect and prevent the diseases that cause dementia.

“These three projects demonstrate how we are funding research that will do exactly that. They also underline our commitment to develop the next generation of dementia researchers. By funding early career scientists, not only do we make vital scientific progress, but we also bring new talent into the dementia research field. We only support the very best scientific ideas with the greatest potential to change the lives of people living with dementia. Each new discovery that these projects produce paves the way for better diagnosis, treatment, and prevention and ultimately for a cure.”