More than 250 million people worldwide suffer from neurological diseases. These include diseases as diverse as Alzheimer’s, ALS and abnormalities on the autism spectrum. They all have to do with the brain and with transmission of signals within it. In recent years, much research has been done and a lot of money has been invested to better understand and develop treatments for these diseases. But many of these diseases still cause a lot of damage and are still largely misunderstood.
According to Daan Brinks, one reason for this is that although there is a great deal of knowledge – on topics ranging from molecular and cellular processes to tissues and organs – these different types of knowledge are not properly coordinated.
‘A wide variety of specialists has gained the knowledge we have about neurological diseases’, Brinks explains: ‘These specialists research with a variety of time and length scales: Some look at short-term processes that take place deep inside human cells, while others look at the developmental processes that take place over a lifetime.
“The problem becomes clear when we look, for example, at efforts to develop drugs for a complex disease like Alzheimer’s,” Brinks continued. “New drugs are often first tested in mice. There they often work well, but when researchers take the next step, and start trying the drugs on real patients, they often don’t work at all, and we don’t exactly know why. The researchers doing tests with mice in a lab are very different researchers than those working with real patients. They don’t speak each other’s language, and usually don’t make decisions based on each other’s knowledge. As a result, the step from a mouse to a human becomes too big. We are going to try to improve that.”
One way in which Brinks and his colleagues want to do that is by training a new generation of people who can oversee this big complex picture and consult with all specialists, from molecular biologists to physicians in the treatment room. They want to achieve more mutual communication and develop experiments verifying if the different steps taken are based on mutually transferable knowledge.
Brinks: ‘Five years from now, we want to be able to show the added value of our approach with a working drug or diagnostic procedures for patients developed in our pipeline. That is to say, as a result of a renewed process in which all the steps are correct and follow one another logically based on transdisciplinary knowledge.’