James Dyson Foundation funds dementia research in partnership with F1’s Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart, Dr Claire Durrant and Sir James Dyson
James Dyson Foundation, Alzheimers fellowship

In a step away from its usual engineering focussed research, the Malmesbury-based James Dyson Foundation is funding a five-year £500,000 dementia research fellowship in partnership with former F1 driver Jackie Stewart’s charity, Race Against Dementia (RAD).

The global company has tasked Dr Claire Durrant to establish new human models of Alzheimer’s disease, investigating the role of tau – a protein implicated in dementia.

50 million people around the world have dementia. Unless a cure is found, one in three people born today will die with the disease, according to research. In the UK, there is one dementia researcher to every four cancer researchers. The Race Against Dementia Dyson Fellowship fuses together a relationship between industry and medicine to explore how technology can enable breakthroughs.

Dyson engineers are helping Claire analyse brain samples on a microscopic level, using in-house equipment and expertise at Dyson’s labs in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. This approach is normally used for future-focused battery research, and it would have unlikely been applied to brain research were it not for this collaboration.

Diversity of thought is at the core of research, design and development at Dyson. Engineers, designers, chemists, software specialists from all levels of experience come together, asking questions and creating technologies that solve problems that are not yet answered.

Dyson engineers are helping Claire analyse brain samples on a microscopic level, using in-house equipment and expertise at Dyson’s labs in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. This approach is normally used for future-focused battery research, and it would have unlikely been applied to brain research were it not for this collaboration.

Sir James Dyson said: “Race Against Dementia are striving to find solutions to one of the most devastating, unanswered problems in the medical world. They are taking a different approach, using new approaches and I am just so pleased to support Clare’s research through the Dyson Fellowship. By encouraging collaboration across industry and asking questions we can challenges convention to find a different and better way of doing things. Over the past ten years Dyson has been doing very serious research into battery development which involves looking at the chemistry of batteries and what goes on inside at a molecular level. This research, as well as the skills and equipment that we have here at Dyson, meant that our engineers can help Claire examine brain tissue atomically as she continues her pioneering research. It’s about approaching things from new angles and I find that very exciting.”

After collaborating online over the past year, Claire visited Dyson’s labs and engineers in July to get hands-on with the team’s equipment, to better understand its application in her research.

James Dyson Foundation Claire DurrantSpeaking about her fellowship, Claire said: “So far, I’ve designed my experiments using equipment available in my lab. But working with Dyson, I’m asked questions about my methodology and apparatus that I’d never considered. People haven’t thought of working in this way because biology and engineering are two disciplines that normally sit on parallel tramlines. I can’t think of any other science scheme where you get access to different people and game-changing resources in the same way that you do in the Race Against Dementia Dyson Fellowship; it’s really phenomenal.”

Claire studied Natural Sciences and completed a PhD and post doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, sparking her intrigue to research further into how the brain works. She then relocated to the University of Edinburgh having successfully applied as the Race Against Dementia Dyson Fellow. Embarking on a five-year research programme to uniquely establish new human models of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Durrant’s £500,000 project, funded by the James Dyson Foundation, investigates the role of tau, a key protein implicated in both frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Durrant is investigating the role of tau in keeping synapses – the connections between brain cells – healthy and how these change during the disease. The tau protein is an important target for future dementia treatments and understanding more about its role in Alzheimer’s disease will be key for the success of this approach.

Dr Durrant works with a network of brain surgeons to collect small samples of living human brain, with the patient’s permission, that would otherwise be disposed of following neurosurgery. Slicing them thinly and preserving the samples in dishes, she has proven we can keep brain alive in this way. By adding different drugs or stimuli thought to cause Alzheimer’s disease to the samples, Dr Durrant can watch the changes under a microscope in real time.

In 2014, Sir Jackie Stewart’s wife, Helen, was diagnosed with dementia. Frustrated at the pace of progress in dementia science research, Sir Jackie founded Race Against Dementia. A charity that raises funds to accelerate global research and development in the race to find a prevention or treatment for dementia. RAD backs the most talented early-career researchers, funds innovative research ideas worldwide and installs the detail and urgency of Formula One in its work.

Sir Jackie Stewart OBE, Former F1 driver, said: “When I created Race Against Dementia, we were driven to partner with some of the world’s leading innovators to support us in our mission to change the culture of dementia research and accelerate progress. James Dyson came on board and was very generous with his contribution towards Race Against Dementia. The only industry that I know that has a problem-solving mentality like his is leading Formula One teams such as Red Bull and McLaren. Working together with Dyson, I am confident we’re going to find a different way of doing things which will break new ground with Claire’s research.”