On Wednesday 7 December 2022, the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) announced that the FNR PEARL Chair was awarded to Prof Michael Heneka, the director of the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) at the University of Luxembourg for a research project focusing on Alzheimer’s disease.
Endowed with €3.9 million, this new project aims to serve as a bridge between fundamental research and clinical applications for diagnostics and therapy, contributing to improving care for dementia patients in Luxembourg and beyond.
Dementia has been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a major health issue. With an expected increase from currently 55 million cases to about 150 million in 2050, dementia will significantly affect healthcare systems worldwide. Approximately two-thirds of all dementia patients are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that leads to memory dysfunction, behavioural disturbances and loss of all higher cognitive functions. To date, the biological mechanisms responsible for this disease remain unclear and neither preventive nor disease-modifying therapies exist.
“It has increasingly become clear that Alzheimer’s is, in fact, not a disease of the elderly but starts much earlier in life,” explained Prof Heneka, director of the LCSB and head of the Neuroinflammation group. “Understanding its origins is therefore key to be able to detect and treat it before the devastating effects on the brain fully appear.”
As a board-certified neurologist and clinician-scientist, Prof Heneka has extensive experience in studying neurodegenerative diseases at experimental, preclinical and clinical levels. Before joining the LCSB in January 2022, he was a professor for Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Bonn, where he established a neurodegenerative outpatient unit and headed the Department of Neurodegenerative Disease and Geriatric Psychiatry. He has long been studying the underlying molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease and, in particular, the role of the immune system and its dysregulation.
With this new project, called MINIALZ, Prof Heneka and his team is expected to further disentangle the role of genetic and environmental influences, such as diet and lifestyle, on the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “We will study the interaction of immune cells and neurons in the brain, both in animal models and in cell cultures directly derived from blood samples given by patients,” said Prof Heneka. “Our aim is to better understand what role the brain immune cells play in keeping neurons healthy and what happens if their interactions are altered.”
The project will capitalise on the recent identification, by Prof Heneka’s team, of a new mechanism: microglia, the immune cells of the brain, form tunnelling nanotubes with neighbouring neurons to free them from pathological proteins, ensuring their function and survival. Preliminary results suggest that the involved mechanisms are defective in microglia carrying mutations associated with Alzheimer’s disease, placing this network of nanotubes at the core of neurodegeneration. According to FNR, this brand-new field of study is promising, opening new avenues for several brain diseases and eliciting a lot of interest in the international scientific community.
By studying the underlying mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease at the molecular level, MINIALZ will give important indications for earlier diagnosis and potential treatment options. “We want to coordinate fundamental research on dementia in Luxembourg with translational and clinical research efforts,” said Prof Heneka. “Our results should help to develop new biomarkers or therapeutic measures and support Luxembourg’s ambition to provide excellent healthcare to dementia patients.”
“Over the past decade, the LCSB has become a stronghold of neuroscience research, focusing in particular on Parkinson’s disease. With this new FNR PEARL Chair, the centre is expanding its expertise and tackling neurodegeneration on a broader level,” emphasised Prof Jens Kreisel, Vice-Rector for Research of the University of Luxembourg. “We are very pleased that Prof Michael Heneka, one of the most internationally renowned scientists in Alzheimer's research, has joined the university and will now lead this new initiative.”
"The project as a whole has the potential to disrupt the field. We see it as an essential chance for Luxembourg to remain at the forefront of Alzheimer's disease research, with a comprehensive plan for basic research that can lead to clinical outcomes”, concluded Dr Marc Schiltz, CEO of FNR. "The FNR is committed to supporting this type of endeavour, which will be significant not only for biomedical research but also for the benefit of public health in Luxembourg."