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The world’s largest population study just launched. Can it help treat dementia?

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A Neurology scan taken using GE’s PET/MR technology.

Worldwide, nearly 44 million people have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia[1]. In the UK, it is estimated that there are currently over 800,000 people living with dementia – by 2040, that number is expected to double. 60,000 deaths a year in the country are directly attributable to dementia, yet diagnosis rates for dementia remain low, with the Alzheimer’s Society finding that only 64.8% of people with dementia in Northern Ireland had received a diagnosis, followed by just 48% in England and 43.4% in Wales[2].

Established by the Medical Research Council in June 2014, the £53M Dementias Platform UK (DPUK) is creating the world’s largest population study, bringing together two million participants, from over 30 existing study groups within the country. The project aims to transform its scientists’ pioneering research into real, effective treatments for patients.

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The magnet is lowered into the Newcastle radiology suite.

Directed by Professor John Gallacher from the University of Oxford, the DPUK team of investigators – drawn from nine institutes including Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Manchester, MRC Biostatistics Unit -Cambridge, Newcastle, University College London and Swansea, are taking a new approach to dementia research.

Traditionally, researchers have predominantly focused on the activities of the brain in at-risk and early-stage sufferers, but emerging evidence has actually linked the development of dementia with inflammatory, cardiovascular and metabolic events and disorders. By monitoring the brain’s activities alongside that of the whole body, DPUK will analyse these potential connections in an effort to identify cognitive, genetic, physiological and imaging indicators (biomarkers).

To help make this level of analysis possible, a GE PET/MR scanner will be installed at four of the universities participating in the study. Last month the first two of the colossal 7.3-tonne 3 Tesla MRI magnets with built in PET inserts were delivered to Cambridge and Newcastle.

Magnetic resonance, or MR, has long been radiographers’ go-to technology for imaging soft tissue as well the body’s structural details such as your brain, spinal cord and internal organs. With Positron Emission Technology, or PET, clinicians can visualize cellular activity and metabolism. When these two powerful tools are combined, researchers may be able to see early molecular changes, map them onto the structural MR images, and follow their progression as a disease develops or worsens.

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GE’s PET/MR 7-tonne magnet arrives at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.

This kind of simultaneous image generation can also enable doctors and researchers to measure the effectiveness of a contemporary or novel treatment faster than traditional methods.

“Purchasing vital equipment such as this will put the UK at the forefront of dementia research worldwide – and establishing networks of scientists will ensure that researchers are working together to make the best use of the equipment,” said Professor John Gallacher, Director of DPUK.

Karl Blight, General Manager for GE Healthcare Northern Europe added, “GE is proud to support the Dementias Platform UK and the Universities involved as they carry out such valuable research. Through the use of our PET/MR technology in Cambridge, Imperial College London, Manchester and Newcastle, we hope to enable image sharing across the network. We’re looking forward to seeing how the program progresses.”

Armed with this new detailed knowledge, the team hopes to form new treatment options to manage symptoms in the near future, and determine preventive actions in the long term.

[1] Alzheimers.net,  http://www.alzheimers.net/resources/alzheimers-statistics/, accessed May 20 2016.

[2] Parliament.uk, http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN07007, accessed May 20 2016.