Research and Collaboration

Why is research collaboration so important? Senior researcher Professor Julie Williams gives her view.

For the last 25 years my team at Cardiff University has been focused on trying to find genes that affect a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the years we have formed ever larger collaborations, first within the UK and then with colleagues in Europe and the USA. This partnership work has led to the discovery of over 40 susceptibility genes, giving us a much clearer understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

As a result of this work and the vast amounts of genetic data we have collected and analysed, we are now able to predict whether a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease with reasonable accuracy.

In cases where people carry a high proportion of susceptibility genes, we’re able to make an accurate prediction around 90% of the time. For the general population, our predictions are correct around 80% of the time.

This opens up exciting new avenues for research. We can identify people in the very early stages of disease, probably in their 30s and 40s, before they see any differences in memory. This gives us the opportunity to learn about the first changes in disease, answering some of the big challenging questions that we wouldn’t have been able to do without the genetic findings.

We also know from our genetic findings that Alzheimer’s is a disease of multiple components. There isn’t just one thing going wrong that results in the cells in the brain dying – it’s a spectrum of different elements that are abnormal, working together to trigger the disease.

One of these components is the role of immune response. The role of immunity is now coming to the fore as a major area of research within Alzheimer’s disease, and I believe this will help further our understanding and produce new treatments in the future.

These discoveries would not have been possible without collaborating with other research centres around the world.

I co-lead the International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project (IGAP), which brings together four consortia and over 500 scientists. As a group, we continue to publish the largest studies of clinical and research-based studies of Alzheimer’s disease.

Expediting results

There is no doubt in my mind that we could have achieved these results more quickly if there was a global mechanism for funding research, or even networks or collaborations that bring researchers together.

As things stand, each research group must get their funding from individual countries – there are at least two dozen countries involved in our collaboration. This creates a number of pitfalls, as using a similar design experiment in different grant applications can mean you lose out.

I think this is due to a misunderstanding, as people say this research is already being done in another country, when this is in fact a benefit. We are trying to create something large and powerful to help us pool our data and gain new insights more quickly.

Supporting international collaboration

What we need is an organisation that could fund the nuts and bolts of international collaborations – the meetings, administrative structures and perhaps most importantly the sharing of data.

Sharing data is at the core of successful research collaborations, but it is costly, and it needs proper support. Our current set-up is cumbersome, and we need funding from a number of different sources, which isn’t always successful.

Given the World Health Organisation’s focus on improving information systems for dementia, it would be ideally placed to fill this gap and help us operate on a far more professional basis that is befitting of global science.

Julie Williams is Professor of Neuropsychological Genetics at Cardiff University and the Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales since 2013. She is one of the world’s leading contributors to Alzheimer’s research. A pioneer of working collaboratively, having recognised early the complexity of AD genetics, and having participated in many world-wide, powerful consortia, the consortium she leads, GERAD (Genetic and Environmental Risk in Alzheimer’s Disease), plays a dominant role in the field, focusing on developing larger, more powerful studies.  

Read more about dementia research and information systems in our new report From Plan to Impact II: the urgent need for action.