ION-DRI Programme


How the new ION-DRI facility will help deliver new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease 

As anti-amyloid drug lecanemab is hailed as a breakthrough for Alzheimer’s, the new ION-DRI facility could help overcome challenges of making drugs like this available to numerous people across the UK

Amyloid plaques illustration; credit: Signal Scientific Visuals

In September, it was announced that an anti-amyloid drug lecanemab had been successful in slowing cognitive decline in people with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s. The first of its kind to show clinical benefit, and potentially disease modifying capabilities, the development has been labelled a breakthrough, and even hailed as the ‘beginning of the end’ for life-changing therapies for the condition.

Following presentation of the Phase III data at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer's Disease conference (CTAD) in November, together with a publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) hosted a roundtable to dig into the data and what it means for the future of Alzheimer’s treatments and clinical translation. 

As Professor Jonathan Schott, panel chair and Neurologist at UCLH, remarked in his introduction, there are significant practical considerations to account for when delivering a drug like lecanemab to the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK living with Alzheimer’s today and in the future. Here we outline just three of those challenges and how developments at the new ION-DRI facility will be at the forefront of overcoming these obstacles. 

1. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease

Lecanemab, and other promising treatments, are showing the field that the earlier you intervene therapeutically, the better chance you have of saving neurons and cognitive function. However, in order to identify those patients, we need better diagnostics for Alzheimer’s than the current methods which can be costly, impractical, and inaccurate. 

The recently launched UK DRI Biomarker Factory, led by Dr Amanda Heslegrave, as part of the Zetterberg Lab, aims to validate new fluid biomarkers, such as molecules and proteins found in the blood, to help identify people living with Alzheimer’s earlier and more easily. If successful, a scalable blood test would transform accurate enrolment and monitoring of patients for clinical trials. 

2. Bench to bedside and back again

As we move into a new era of treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, it is vital that we continue to look to the patient for new insight on these conditions and how to tackle them. 

The ION-DRI building is designed to facilitate this, housing both dementia outpatient facilities and research labs in close proximity, and helping with bidirectional learning. The close relationship between the lab bench and the clinic, like that at the UK DRI’s hub at UCL, will help ensure new scientific discoveries have the best chance of translation into human therapies. 

3. Tackling dementia from multiple angles

The pioneering genetic work of Prof Sir John Hardy (Group Leader, UK DRI at UCL) in the nineties first positioned amyloid beta as a primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The breakthrough antibody drug lecanemab targets this protein, and it is hoped that these positive results kickstart more successes in the field. 

However, it is evident that Alzheimer’s disease is a long and complex condition with several components and multiple stages. It is therefore widely acknowledged that clinicians will require a varied arsenal of drugs to treat the patient population effectively in the future. 

Researchers at the UK DRI at UCL are exploring a number of these different avenues, seeking to uncover new drug targets for the disease. Promising areas include the brain’s immune system and another protein hallmark, Tau, currently under investigation by Group Leader Dr Soyon Hong and Centre Director Professor Karen Duff, respectively.

For the millions of people affected by Alzheimer’s worldwide, the landmark lecanemab news provides renewed hope that life-changing treatments are in the pipeline. Although many challenges remain, exciting developments like the ION-DRI facility will give scientists and clinicians the best chance of making this a reality. 

Written by Dr Alex Collcutt, UK DRI Research Communications Manager