A new Australian lab to investigate the chemical signatures of dementia
Luke's ECR grant was instrumental in obtaining a new position at a research institute in Australia where he has set up a group to investigate the chemical signatures of healthy ageing and dementia.
Current focus for the lab
Luke's team is working with samples from clinical collaborators based at the Perron Institute for Neurological and Translational Science as well as Australian population cohorts.
The team are working with data that has been collected over several years. One of the lab's first projects will use samples collected at two different time points. They are using the samples to investigate if there are any changes to an individual’s chemical signature that may increase the risk of dementia. Their work will look at existing known 'metabolites' - the chemicals that living cells produce - for example, specific fats and lipids, to see how they are changing over time.
The late stages of dementia are associated with the death of neurons and shrinkage of the brain. Before this, cells break down and leave traces of their breakdown in the blood. If researchers can identify the traces left in this breakdown process, they are on the way to early identification - a key stage in the development of early treatment and prevention.
"Using cohorts in my research into the chemical signatures of dementia is fascinating because there are so many avenues to pursue. Being involved with so many scientific disciplines means I'm always collaborating with excellent scientists, and every day brings something new. There is excitement and urgency to my work in this field. It does feel very rewarding when you can add to the literature in the area and advance our understanding of disease. There is still so much about metabolism of the brain and dementia still undiscovered".
Which chemical changes are Luke's team studying?
- Luke and his team will be studying the overall chemical signature of dementia, using blood, urine and tissue samples from both humans and animals. Specifically, their work involves looking at 'metabolites' - the chemicals which living cells produce. These crucial chemicals have different characters depending on whether the cells are healthy or diseased. As such, they can be very useful in identifying and tracking the biochemical pathways that are altered when a cell or system becomes diseased.
How does cohort data help?
- Luke's team are trying to identify metabolites that could be signs of the early stages in dementia. The longitudinal cohorts they work with are very important because they allow the observation of chemical changes over time. Once these early chemical signs are pinpointed, drugs can be developed that target them to slow or prevent the progression of dementia.
DPUK supported Luke with an ECR grant
Dr Luke Whiley was an early career researcher at Imperial College London when he won his ECR grant to attend a training course on epidemiology. The skills he learnt there helped him win a new research position at Murduch University in Perth, Australia. There, he is combining his new epidemiology skills with his prior expertise in biochemistry.
He is one of a number of ECR grant awardees who have gone on to take up opportunities to progress their careers that they wouldn't otherwise have had.
Luke now holds a lectureship position at the Australian National Phenome Centre, Murdoch University, Perth.
More impact case studies
When investigating the brain, scientists work with datasets containing vast amounts of detail. This includes the brain scans that they’ll be working with. Variations between images could indicate a particular character of the Alzheimer’s disease development. They could indicate the role of a particular chemical in the brain, or the role of a particular area in the brain.
The New Therapeutics into Alzheimer's Disease (NTAD) study is looking to detect markers of the disease before symptoms show. These markers for the disease will be used to test whether experimental treatments can delay, or even prevent, the progression of the disease.
Researchers will carry out additional PET scanning of 100 people who have already had PET scans as part of their involvement in two existing health study cohorts – EPAD and PREVENT. The extra information they collect on the 'tau' protein, when combined with existing data from these participants, will create a very rich dataset for modelling the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and subsequent dementia.