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Crowdsourcing initiative to tackle Alzheimer’s

The BioMed X Innovation Center and the biopharmaceutical company AbbVie Deutschland GmbH & Co. KG have used crowdsourcing to set up a team of scientists from renowned international institutions to investigate new options for treating Alzheimer’s disease. The team are looking for targets in the metabolism of tau proteins and its pathological modifications that can be used to develop drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

BioMed-X-Team © BioMed X

It is estimated that there are approximately 47 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s (World Alzheimer Report 2015). This number will continue to rise due to increased life expectancy and hence larger numbers of older people. In Germany alone, there are about 1.2 million Alzheimer’s (AD) patients, a figure that could reach three million by 2050. Despite many years of intensive research, no remedy yet exists for this dreaded neurodegenerative disease nor is there any way to slow its progression. AbbVie, a global, research-based biopharmaceutical company from the USA that has its R&D site in Ludwigshafen (Germany), and BioMed X are now pursuing new paths for developing drugs against AD.

The BioMed X Innovation Center runs a research laboratory in the Heidelberg Technology Park and is a new collaboration model at the interface between academia and the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. At the center, early career scientists from around the world are working jointly on biomedical projects specified by the industrial partners that sponsor them. While previous research efforts have mainly focused on developing therapies that target the characteristic amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s brains and the enzymes and metabolic products of the amyloid precursor protein, AbbVie’s project “TNA: Tau-mediated neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease” focuses on the tau protein and its pathological post-translational modifications. Under normal physiological circumstances, one of the many things that the tau protein does is stabilise the microtubules that run the length of the axons. In AD (and some other tauopathies), the tau protein is hyperphoshorylised, resulting in aggregates that are deposited as so-called neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.

Crowdsourcing and teamwork

Dr. Dagmar Ehrnhöfer, head of BioMed X TNA project group © BioMed X

BioMed X has applied a crowdsourcing approach to establish a research team of young scientists with bright ideas from leading academic institutions around the world. The aim is to identify new approaches for investigating the tau metablism and its role in the pathogenesis and progression of AD. AbbVie and BioMed X selected five scientists on the basis of scientific competence and creativity. Under the leadership of Dr. Dagmar Ehrnhöfer, the group of five started work in the BioMed X Innovation Center research laboratory in late 2015. They began by drawing up a detailed work plan for the next two years. Ehrnhöfer was part of a group of scientists led by Michael R. Hayden, a world-renowned medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The team will also be supported by experienced mentors from the University of Heidelberg’s science departments and AbbVie Deutschland. The scientists will also have access to the research institutions on the University of Heidelberg campus, as Christian Tidona, founder and managing director of BioMed X in Heidelberg, said.

The TNA is BioMed X’s sixth project group, and the first sponsored by a global biopharmaceutical company headquartered in the USA, as Tidona was pleased to point out. “In order to be able to develop effective therapies for diseases with a high unmet medical need, we need a perspective that goes beyond our company,” says Alfred Hahn, Senior Director and Head of Discovery at AbbVie, commenting on his company's commitment. He continues: “By cooperating with research institutions like BioMed X and by focusing on crowdsourcing and sharing knowledge, we can enhance the development of new therapies for people with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s."

Pathological post-translational tau modifications

If the project comes up with promising research results, it could potentially be extended for another one to four years. The young researchers will also given the opportunity to publish their results. At the end of the project, the resulting preclinical R&D projects can either be continued by AbbVie, or BioMed X can transfer them into a start-up company. "The project focuses on the network of post-translational tau protein modifications in order to study the interactions between different types of modifications and their impact on the function and malfunction, in the case of disease, of tau," explains the team leader Dr. Ehrnhöfer. The researchers are using samples derived from Alzheimer’s patients as well as nerve cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. They then apply a variety of analytical and biochemical approaches and screening methods to find molecules suitable for the development of therapeutic agents. The researchers also hope to be able to deduce reliable biomarkers from characteristic patterns of pathological tau modifications and use them for diagnosing and monitoring the disease. 

According to the current state of Alzheimer's research, abnormal post-translational modifications play a key role in the manifestation and progression of the disease. New drugs that particularly target the pathologically altered tau metabolism are urgently needed. The cooperation between AbbVie and BioMed X, which according to Alfred Hahn brings together the best people from academia and industry around the world, takes into account this particular need. 

World Alzheimer Report 2015

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/crowdsourcing-initiative-to-tackle-alzheimers