A European start-up led by Leuven researcher Professor Bart De Strooper has succeeded in raising €60 million for research into Alzheimer’s Disease.
Prof De Strooper is considered one of the world’s leading experts on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. His laboratory at Leuven is also part of the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and he also runs the Dementia Research Institute in London.
About 18 months ago, the Belgian investment group Droia visited his lab with one question: What is the coolest research you’re busy with at the moment?
The answer led to the creation of K5, a research group bringing together De Strooper’s resources and the Danish group Muna Therapeutics, which is currently running three research projects into neurodegenerative diseases.
The joint project has now raised €60 million in capital, €12 million of it from Droia. The rest comes from investment funds – any effective treatment for Alzheimer’s would be extremely remunerative – but also from pharmaceuticals company Sanofi, and from Novo Nordisk, which makes treatments for diabetes.
K5 – named after a mountain in Pakistan whose local name means ‘hidden peak’ – will be headquartered in Copenhagen, but the research will be concentrated in Leuven, with a staff of about 20.
And the answer to that big question from Droia?
“We’re not going to cure Alzheimer’s, but we want to avoid the main symptom, dementia. Not knowing or being able to do anything has the most impact on people. That would be a big step forward,” De Strooper told De Tijd.
The research starts out from one basic observation: there are many elderly people whose brains show signs of Alzheimer’s, such as the agglomeration of proteins – but who demonstrate no signs of dementia at all.
The coolest question De Strooper could think of was: What makes the difference between a bewildered and incontinent elderly person in a home, and a sparky 99-year-old like Captain Tom, raising more than €35 million for health workers?
“We turned the question around, from ‘why does someone become demented?’ to ‘why does someone not become demented?’,” he explained.
“Can we uncover those mechanisms? And can we influence that with medicines and switch certain switches in the brain on or off? Compare it to cancer. Everyone develops cancer cells, but the immune system usually clears them up. If that is not the case, they try to give the immune system extra strength with treatments.”
The investors, meanwhile, hope that a first medication will be ready for testing in three to five years. “We’ve made a very promising start,” said Luc Dochez of Droia. “But we still have everything to prove.”