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The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has embarked upon a genomics project that aims to accelerate research into personalised dementia therapies.

If you’ve never had a close family member or friend with dementia before, the reality is that – in time – you probably will.

More than 50 million people across the globe live with dementia and in 25 years that number is expected to rise to 150 million, according to the World Health Organisation. In the absence of a significant medical breakthrough, 6.4 million Australians will be diagnosed with dementia over the next 40 years. 

“Even though we're getting healthier as a society, dementia is becoming much more prominent,” says Professor Melanie Bahlo, the Healthy Development and Ageing Theme Leader at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). “There's a clear need for progress and greater dementia research.”

That’s why WEHI – Australia's oldest biomedical research institute – has embarked on a genomics project to accelerate dementia research. The four-year project was launched this year with a $1 million flagship grant from the Alfred Felton Bequest, which is managed by Equity Trustees. 

“Without the philanthropic funding we’ve received, we wouldn't have been able to start this project.”

Dementia is a neurodegenerative disorder that mistakenly gets referred to as one disease. 

“Dementia is a very heterogeneous disease. It's like cancer in the sense that ‘dementia’ is actually just a description for a set of symptoms.” 

Professor Bahlo says dementia is a diverse group of conditions characterised by the impairment of at least two brain functions (such as memory loss and judgement). Dementia may be classified into Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lewy Body Dementia and Frontotemporal Dementia.

“Right now a lot of therapies are targeted towards particular molecular pathways or genes that are disrupted. So it’s really important that we start to understand what molecular pathway is actually disrupted when somebody is diagnosed with dementia. Once we know that, we can then design targeted, personalised therapies to tackle it.”

WEHI’s dementia project will use whole genome sequencing to tease apart the various kinds of dementia sub-types, which will help develop more personalised genetic diagnoses and treatments.

The research team plans to work with Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Alfred Hospital to conduct whole genome sequencing on 500 Victorian patients. The data will then be analysed to achieve genetic diagnoses and meaningful results. 

“Personalised medicine has turned out to be incredibly important in treating people with cancer. Personalised medicine could be the future for dementia treatments as well.” 

Professor Bahlo is hopeful that the project will make great progress in reducing the predicted national and global dementia burden.

“The work that we are doing now will place us in a great position in two-to-three years’ time, enabling us to attract funding from other bodies and build on the program further. I really believe this project will help to get the ball rolling on dementia research.”

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