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Q&A With an AAIC Plenary Speaker
Each year, the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® gives world-renowned researchers the opportunity to share their discoveries and help advance dementia science. This year, the Alzheimer’s Association is pleased to welcome nine distinguished keynote speakers to AAIC 2019. Learn more about plenary speaker Bart De Strooper and what you can expect at his session, "The Cellular Phase of Alzheimer’s Disease," on Wednesday, July 17.
Theme: Basic and Translational Science
The Cellular Phase of Alzheimer’s Disease
Tell us briefly about your background as a researcher and what you’re currently focused on.
I was always interested in research around medical challenges. Back in 1991, I had to choose a new project. Fascinated by a brain problem, and seeing almost nobody working on Alzheimer’s disease (AD), I decided to try to understand the molecular pathways causing AD. I had genetics guiding my work. I have studied in depth how single mutations in genes cause the molecular pathology characterizing familial (and sporadic) AD. The last three years, I shifted completely to understand the cellular phase of AD — how genetic predisposition in sporadic AD alters cellular states and responses and causes in that way dyshomeostasis of the brain and neurodegenerative disease. My ultimate goal is to identify useful drug targets.
Your research is focused on the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. What initially drew you to this work?
I was, and I am still, fascinated by how a single amino acid mutation in APP or PSEN is sufficient to cause the whole pathological catastrophe that we call Alzheimer’s disease. When I was a young postdoc, I guessed that the proteases that cleave Abeta out of the long Abeta precursor protein (APP), and especially the one cleaving in the membrane, would be of huge scientific and medical interest. I was at that time convinced that they would provide perfect drug targets for AD. It turned out to be more complicated than that, but still I think that having identified presenilin and gamma-secretases, and having explained how Notch signaling is regulated by these enzymes, was very exciting and important.
How do you see dementia science changing over the next several decades?
It will expand to a big research field, probably as big as the cancer field at this moment. We need to think much more multidisciplinary at the basic research level — immunology, biochemistry, cell biology and neurophysiology should go much more hand in hand. At the level of the clinic, much more curiosity and innovation is needed. Why do we not work harder on the identification of the early symptoms in AD? I see a lot of possibility for functional diagnostics through electrophysiology, refined behavioral and cognitive assays using portable hardware, and I expect a multitude of drug targets which will allow us to treat dementia disorders in a more specific, stratified way.
Can you give us a preview of your plenary session?
I will give an overview of the research exploring the fundamental molecular causes of AD and how genetic risk factors and causal genetically-defined pathways interact to define one’s risk for AD. I will explain how the genetic makeup (i.e., the combination of genetic risk as defined by polygenic risk scores) of microglia determines the chances of developing AD or your protection against AD when exposed to amyloid beta plaques.
How long have you been attending the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference? Are there any highlights from past conferences that stand out?
My first meeting was the third AAIC, at that time called the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. There were only a few hundred scientists present, but it was really great fun to see how passionate the debates were at that time. We knew almost nothing about the disorder, and almost everybody disagreed with each other.
What advice would you give and which sessions would you recommend to someone attending AAIC for the first time? What about for returning attendees?
Go to all plenary lectures; after the conference you will have an excellent overview of the field. I would recommend plenary lectures for new attendees and poster sessions for the attendees who return every year.
Tell us about the value of networking at AAIC.
Networking is important at all levels. When I was a student, I came back from AAIC with plenty of contacts for antibodies, cDNA, cells. Later on, I came back with ideas for collaborations. Now, I use the meeting to get an overview of the big tendencies in the field, to check-in with thought leaders on how they see the situation evolving, talk with the industry, and above all, meet postdoc candidates for my laboratory in Leuven and PI for the UK Dementia Research Institute.
→ Learn about our other plenary speakers.