As project co-ordinator, Dr. Franz Adlkofer of the Verum Foundation for behaviour and environment explained that the roots of APOPIS can be traced back to an earlier FP5 project: "The new initiative represents an expansion of the DIADEM project, which focused on Alzheimer's disease, to include conditions such as Parkinson's, Huntingdon's and prion diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)."
The scientific scope of the project is also much broader, according to Dr. Adlkofer. The main objective of DIADEM was the early diagnosis of Alzheimer's and related dementia, and while early diagnosis is still a target within APOPIS, the consortium aims to take a pathogenetic approach in order to identify those biological functions that are responsible for causing neurodegenerative disorders.
"The theory is that there is a single reason for all neurodegenerative disorders, namely the deposition of certain compounds, known as protein aggregates, in the human brain", Dr. Adlkofer explained. One element of the project will involve analysing the different kinds of proteins that form in the brains of sufferers, while a second work package will take this research a step further by trying to identify the genetic factors that lead protein aggregates to form.
Tackling this element of the APOPIS project will be Professor Mick Tuite and his team at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. "We are working at the very basic end of the problem", Professor Tuite explained. Their challenge is to try and identify which genetic mutations cause proteins to fold incorrectly and thus form the insoluble clusters in the brain that have been blamed for these disorders.
Rather than use human or animal models to carry out this analysis, which can need as long as two years for such aggregates to form, Professor Tuite's team has developed a novel method for studying such proteins. They will use a model based on Baker's yeast, in which the same target proteins, known as amyloid beta, are able to form. What is more, they can form in as little as two days, allowing for a much faster assessment and through put of results.
This is when the multi-disciplinary nature of Integrated Projects (IPs) like APOPIS comes in to its own. "While Baker's yeast can't tell us much about the functions of the human brain, what we learn about these amyloid beta protein aggregates can then be used to identify possible drugs by the pharmaceutical companies working within the project", Professor Tuite explained.
Through such co-operation, Dr. Adlkofer hopes that APOPIS will identify new clinical approaches for the treatment of these diseases. "It was an absolute must that these different disciplines should work together on the project in this way. Clinicians can provide biological samples to basic research institutes, which in turn will give pharmaceutical companies new ideas for possible treatments, which can then be tested by clinicians", he stated.
Dr. Adlkofer is also certain that APOPIS has gathered together the best research groups in Europe, and as an indication of this quality, he revealed that originally, 85 teams had wanted to take part in the project, but funding could only be made available to support 40. Indeed, the consortium is already planning ways of generating extra funding for the project from the private sector in order to maximise its impact.
And while all the participants hope that the project will make a significant contribution in the fight against some of the most challenging diseases facing Western society, Dr. Adlkofer is clear about its primary aim: "APOPIS is all about advancing our understanding of these disorders, and laying the foundations for future discoveries and projects." The hope must be that one day, such discoveries will also lead to effective cures.