A united front

Dr Tim Bartels and Dr Soyon Hong discuss their pioneering work at the UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL

Illustration of Dr Tim Bartels and Dr Soyon Hong having a conversation together

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Dr Tim Bartels and Dr Soyon Hong met while studying in Boston and moved to London two years ago. “Although we both had job offers in the USA, we moved to the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) at UCL because it has a bold approach that we believe will be critical to solving dementia,” says Dr Hong.

“Dementia is a global socioeconomic issue. It impacts every family. My dad recently died of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s a huge international effort to solve it; the UK DRI is at the forefront of this and is bringing experts together.”

Dr Bartels agrees. “In neurodegenerative research, the problems are getting more complex and the solutions harder,” he says. “Our collaborative, multi-lab effort allows experts to share methods and data, which is also advantageous as neurodegenerative diseases have much in common.”

At the hub

In bringing together experts with different backgrounds in terms of the diseases and details that they study, the UK DRI lets them exchange approaches and perspectives. “We value that it’s a collective effort,” adds Dr Hong. “We are open with our ideas, our science and our preliminary results. This inspires true innovation. We’re also passionate about making structural changes to improve racial diversity. Dementia research will benefit from an inclusive environment.”

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Dr Tim Bartels and Dr Soyon Hong met while studying in Boston and moved to London two years ago. “Although we both had job offers in the USA, we moved to the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) at UCL because it has a bold approach that we believe will be critical to solving dementia,” says Dr Hong.

“Dementia is a global socioeconomic issue. It impacts every family. My dad recently died of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s a huge international effort to solve it; the UK DRI is at the forefront of this and is bringing experts together.”

Dr Bartels agrees. “In neurodegenerative research, the problems are getting more complex and the solutions harder,” he says. “Our collaborative, multi-lab effort allows experts to share methods and data, which is also advantageous as neurodegenerative diseases have much in common.”

At the hub

In bringing together experts with different backgrounds in terms of the diseases and details that they study, the UK DRI lets them exchange approaches and perspectives. “We value that it’s a collective effort,” adds Dr Hong. “We are open with our ideas, our science and our preliminary results. This inspires true innovation. We’re also passionate about making structural changes to improve racial diversity. Dementia research will benefit from an inclusive environment.”

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Dr Tim Bartels and Dr Soyon Hong met while studying in Boston and moved to London two years ago. “Although we both had job offers in the USA, we moved to the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) at UCL because it has a bold approach that we believe will be critical to solving dementia,” says Dr Hong.

“Dementia is a global socioeconomic issue. It impacts every family. My dad recently died of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s a huge international effort to solve it; the UK DRI is at the forefront of this and is bringing experts together.”

Dr Bartels agrees. “In neurodegenerative research, the problems are getting more complex and the solutions harder,” he says. “Our collaborative, multi-lab effort allows experts to share methods and data, which is also advantageous as neurodegenerative diseases have much in common.”

At the hub

In bringing together experts with different backgrounds in terms of the diseases and details that they study, the UK DRI lets them exchange approaches and perspectives. “We value that it’s a collective effort,” adds Dr Hong. “We are open with our ideas, our science and our preliminary results. This inspires true innovation. We’re also passionate about making structural changes to improve racial diversity. Dementia research will benefit from an inclusive environment.”

“It’s like being the manager of a small start-up”

Dr Tim Bartels

“It’s like being the manager of a small start-up”

Dr Tim Bartels

“It’s like being the manager of a small start-up”

Dr Tim Bartels

Formed of seven centres across the UK with approximately 74 research labs, the UK DRI has its hub at UCL. The pair’s roles as Group Leaders are as innovative as their research. “We devise research programmes based on our expertise and ideas to ask questions,” explains Dr Bartels. “Then we hire scientists to find answers to those questions. It’s like being the manager of a small start-up.”

Initial funding was provided by the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Dr Bartels explains, “We’re now trying to attract new funders so we can develop more extensive programmes that are also more integrated into the other research start-ups.”

It’s far removed from the traditional professorship role. Although neither teaches in lecture-based settings, both are supervising students’ research theses. “It’s an important part of what we do,” explains Dr Hong, “and for me, it’s why I chose to stay in academic science. We’re raising the next generation of dementia scientists and helping to shape the future of science.”

Work in progress

Dr Bartels’ research looks at bundles in the brain that are the initiators of dementia. These consist of proteins that usually have a normal function, but at some point they are destabilised and cause harm. “By studying structural changes and outcomes when things go awry, we are trying to find a way to translate these changes as biomarkers – signals that something is going wrong,” he explains.

Dementia has a long preclinical phase. People can have it for 10 to 15 years before showing any symptoms, so early detection and prevention will make a significant difference.

“Identifying dementia’s biomarkers also enables drug research,” adds Dr Bartels. “If you want to test a drug, you want to treat a person, as early in the disease as possible. The earlier the test, the more chance that drug has to have an effect.” His lab has developed triggers of neuroinflammation akin to what is seen in patients, which feeds into Dr Hong’s research.

Formed of seven centres across the UK with approximately 74 research labs, the UK DRI has its hub at UCL. The pair’s roles as Group Leaders are as innovative as their research. “We devise research programmes based on our expertise and ideas to ask questions,” explains Dr Bartels. “Then we hire scientists to find answers to those questions. It’s like being the manager of a small start-up.”

Initial funding was provided by the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Dr Bartels explains, “We’re now trying to attract new funders so we can develop more extensive programmes that are also more integrated into the other research start-ups.”

It’s far removed from the traditional professorship role. Although neither teaches in lecture-based settings, both are supervising students’ research theses. “It’s an important part of what we do,” explains Dr Hong, “and for me, it’s why I chose to stay in academic science. We’re raising the next generation of dementia scientists and helping to shape the future of science.”

Work in progress

Dr Bartels’ research looks at bundles in the brain that are the initiators of dementia. These consist of proteins that usually have a normal function, but at some point they are destabilised and cause harm. “By studying structural changes and outcomes when things go awry, we are trying to find a way to translate these changes as biomarkers – signals that something is going wrong,” he explains.

Dementia has a long preclinical phase. People can have it for 10 to 15 years before showing any symptoms, so early detection and prevention will make a significant difference.

“Identifying dementia’s biomarkers also enables drug research,” adds Dr Bartels. “If you want to test a drug, you want to treat a person, as early in the disease as possible. The earlier the test, the more chance that drug has to have an effect.” His lab has developed triggers of neuroinflammation akin to what is seen in patients, which feeds into Dr Hong’s research.

Formed of seven centres across the UK with approximately 74 research labs, the UK DRI has its hub at UCL. The pair’s roles as Group Leaders are as innovative as their research. “We devise research programmes based on our expertise and ideas to ask questions,” explains Dr Bartels. “Then we hire scientists to find answers to those questions. It’s like being the manager of a small start-up.”

Initial funding was provided by the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Dr Bartels explains, “We’re now trying to attract new funders so we can develop more extensive programmes that are also more integrated into the other research start-ups.”

It’s far removed from the traditional professorship role. Although neither teaches in lecture-based settings, both are supervising students’ research theses. “It’s an important part of what we do,” explains Dr Hong, “and for me, it’s why I chose to stay in academic science. We’re raising the next generation of dementia scientists and helping to shape the future of science.”

Work in progress

Dr Bartels’ research looks at bundles in the brain that are the initiators of dementia. These consist of proteins that usually have a normal function, but at some point they are destabilised and cause harm. “By studying structural changes and outcomes when things go awry, we are trying to find a way to translate these changes as biomarkers – signals that something is going wrong,” he explains.

Dementia has a long preclinical phase. People can have it for 10 to 15 years before showing any symptoms, so early detection and prevention will make a significant difference.

“Identifying dementia’s biomarkers also enables drug research,” adds Dr Bartels. “If you want to test a drug, you want to treat a person, as early in the disease as possible. The earlier the test, the more chance that drug has to have an effect.” His lab has developed triggers of neuroinflammation akin to what is seen in patients, which feeds into Dr Hong’s research.

“Forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease?”

Dr Soyon Hong

“Forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease?”

Dr Soyon Hong

“Forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease?”

Dr Soyon Hong

Dr Hong’s work focuses on how the immune system contributes to memory loss. “I study how microglia, the brain’s immune cells, talk to the nervous cells. Microglia are the brain’s first responders, but in neurodegenerative diseases we’re finding that the cells go awry and instead start attacking the synapses, the connections between nerve cells.” Her team has also found that it’s very brain-region-specific.

Having genetically engineered mice to turn these rogue immune cells off, their challenge now is how to translate that into humans. “While Tim is focusing on developing biomarkers for good and bad protein assemblies, I’m thinking of developing biomarkers for the brain’s sirens that indicate danger,” explains Dr Hong. “No one goes to a neurologist when they forget something because forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease? If we could detect the disease early then we could use targeted therapy, like in cancer treatment.”

Both are excited about recent breakthroughs that their teams are making.

Dr Bartels’ team “might have found a way to establish a biomarker not only to predict that something is wrong but also to pinpoint which of the clinical diseases it will lead to, by using Soyon’s research on different brain regions giving different alarm signals.”

Meanwhile, Dr Hong is collaborating with Professor Kenneth Harris (UCL Faculty of Life Sciences) to see how to visualise microglia gone rogue. “What we are now beginning to understand is that the brain’s immune cells are remarkably plastic, they’re dynamic and they wear multiple hats according to what is required in their environment,” she explains. “What we are working on is how to identify the hats that they wear so that we can brainstorm how to target specifically the immune cells gone awry in the brain.”

At home

Researching and living together makes for a challenging work/life balance. Dr Bartels admits that it is hard to switch off. “Dementia is a huge problem that will only get bigger in the future, and you do end up caring 24/7 about the success of your endeavour. It is always on your mind, thinking about ways to improve and that’s where it helps to have a partner who is in the same situation.”

Dr Hong thinks that having children also helps them to keep things in perspective. “When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I felt tremendous guilt,” she says, “because what I was working on has high therapeutic potential, but we’re not there yet. It was too late for my dad, but I think we can soon provide real hope for families. It’s a big motivation for Tim and me, to provide that hope.”

A world-leading new neuroscience building on Gray’s Inn Road is the future home of the UK DRI at UCL.

Find out more about UCL Dementia Research Institute

Illustration David Sparshott

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Dr Hong’s work focuses on how the immune system contributes to memory loss. “I study how microglia, the brain’s immune cells, talk to the nervous cells. Microglia are the brain’s first responders, but in neurodegenerative diseases we’re finding that the cells go awry and instead start attacking the synapses, the connections between nerve cells.” Her team has also found that it’s very brain-region-specific.

Having genetically engineered mice to turn these rogue immune cells off, their challenge now is how to translate that into humans. “While Tim is focusing on developing biomarkers for good and bad protein assemblies, I’m thinking of developing biomarkers for the brain’s sirens that indicate danger,” explains Dr Hong. “No one goes to a neurologist when they forget something because forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease? If we could detect the disease early then we could use targeted therapy, like in cancer treatment.”

Both are excited about recent breakthroughs that their teams are making.

Dr Bartels’ team “might have found a way to establish a biomarker not only to predict that something is wrong but also to pinpoint which of the clinical diseases it will lead to, by using Soyon’s research on different brain regions giving different alarm signals.”

Meanwhile, Dr Hong is collaborating with Professor Kenneth Harris (UCL Faculty of Life Sciences) to see how to visualise microglia gone rogue. “What we are now beginning to understand is that the brain’s immune cells are remarkably plastic, they’re dynamic and they wear multiple hats according to what is required in their environment,” she explains. “What we are working on is how to identify the hats that they wear so that we can brainstorm how to target specifically the immune cells gone awry in the brain.”

At home

Researching and living together makes for a challenging work/life balance. Dr Bartels admits that it is hard to switch off. “Dementia is a huge problem that will only get bigger in the future, and you do end up caring 24/7 about the success of your endeavour. It is always on your mind, thinking about ways to improve and that’s where it helps to have a partner who is in the same situation.”

Dr Hong thinks that having children also helps them to keep things in perspective. “When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I felt tremendous guilt,” she says, “because what I was working on has high therapeutic potential, but we’re not there yet. It was too late for my dad, but I think we can soon provide real hope for families. It’s a big motivation for Tim and me, to provide that hope.”

A world-leading new neuroscience building on Gray’s Inn Road is the future home of the UK DRI at UCL.

Find out more about UCL Dementia Research Institute

Illustration David Sparshott

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Dr Hong’s work focuses on how the immune system contributes to memory loss. “I study how microglia, the brain’s immune cells, talk to the nervous cells. Microglia are the brain’s first responders, but in neurodegenerative diseases we’re finding that the cells go awry and instead start attacking the synapses, the connections between nerve cells.” Her team has also found that it’s very brain-region-specific.

Having genetically engineered mice to turn these rogue immune cells off, their challenge now is how to translate that into humans. “While Tim is focusing on developing biomarkers for good and bad protein assemblies, I’m thinking of developing biomarkers for the brain’s sirens that indicate danger,” explains Dr Hong. “No one goes to a neurologist when they forget something because forgetting is so common, so how do we differentiate between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease? If we could detect the disease early then we could use targeted therapy, like in cancer treatment.”

Both are excited about recent breakthroughs that their teams are making.

Dr Bartels’ team “might have found a way to establish a biomarker not only to predict that something is wrong but also to pinpoint which of the clinical diseases it will lead to, by using Soyon’s research on different brain regions giving different alarm signals.”

Meanwhile, Dr Hong is collaborating with Professor Kenneth Harris (UCL Faculty of Life Sciences) to see how to visualise microglia gone rogue. “What we are now beginning to understand is that the brain’s immune cells are remarkably plastic, they’re dynamic and they wear multiple hats according to what is required in their environment,” she explains. “What we are working on is how to identify the hats that they wear so that we can brainstorm how to target specifically the immune cells gone awry in the brain.”

At home

Researching and living together makes for a challenging work/life balance. Dr Bartels admits that it is hard to switch off. “Dementia is a huge problem that will only get bigger in the future, and you do end up caring 24/7 about the success of your endeavour. It is always on your mind, thinking about ways to improve and that’s where it helps to have a partner who is in the same situation.”

Dr Hong thinks that having children also helps them to keep things in perspective. “When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I felt tremendous guilt,” she says, “because what I was working on has high therapeutic potential, but we’re not there yet. It was too late for my dad, but I think we can soon provide real hope for families. It’s a big motivation for Tim and me, to provide that hope.”

A world-leading new neuroscience building on Gray’s Inn Road is the future home of the UK DRI at UCL.

Find out more about UCL Dementia Research Institute

Illustration David Sparshott

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.