Dr Katie Lunnon

Exeter scientist wins prestigious dementia prize

University of Exeter researcher Dr Katie Lunnon has won the Early Career Investigator of the Year Award at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2017. The prestigious prize celebrates excellence in dementia research and comes with £25,000 for Dr Lunnon to spend on her cutting-edge research in a field of biology called epigenetics.

Our genes play a large part in the development of many diseases and while our genetic make-up can’t be changed, scientists have come to understand that there are factors that can alter the effects our genes have. Epigenetics involves chemical tags that attach to sections of DNA and affect whether a particular gene is switched on or off. There is a well-established link between epigenetic changes and certain forms of cancer, and drugs that target epigenetic tags are used to help treat people with the disease.

Dr Lunnon leads a research team at the forefront of research into the role of epigenetics in Alzheimer’s disease. Her work has provided some of the first evidence of differences in epigenetic tags in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, opening the door to a much-needed new approach to tackle the disease. She will receive her prize in Aberdeen today (March 15) at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference, the country’s largest annual meeting of dementia researchers.

Dr Lunnon, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “We have known for many years that versions of specific genes are associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Our work suggests that these changes to the DNA code may not be the full story when it comes to how our genes are implicated in the disease, and that some of the brain changes we see may be caused by epigenetic modifications.”

“I’m very proud to get this award from Alzheimer’s Research UK and look forward to building on our findings to understand more about an important aspect of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most exciting things about epigenetic research is that the changes are potentially reversible. Drugs that target epigenetic changes are a tantalising prospect and one that could have a huge impact on people’s lives.”

Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK said: “Katie is a hugely deserving winner of this prize. Her hard work and insight is informing new research efforts and helping to drive progress towards new dementia treatments. It has been fantastic to hear from dedicated researchers like Katie at this week’s conference and see them come together to take on our most pressing medical challenge. Katie’s work is a shining example of the progress and innovation UK dementia researchers are delivering and we wish her every success in her future career.

“Dementia has an enormous impact on families the world over, including those of more than 84,000 people living with the condition in the South West. Research at centres like the University of Exeter is paving the way for life-changing treatments, but these will only be realised with continued investment in research. Alzheimer’s Research UK is committed to funding pioneering science that will allow us reach that goal sooner.”

Date: 16 March 2017

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