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ERC Advanced Grant for Professor Thomas Willnow

Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity Are Major Risk Factors for Alzheimer`s Disease - Professor Thomas Willnow of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch, Germany, has been granted 2,4 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC) in Strasbourg, France, for the next five years. He was one of 284 top researchers in Europe, who received this prestigious ERC Advanced Research Grant in 2013. Overall the ERC has received 2 408 applications for this grant.

Professor Thomas Willnow

Professor Willnow`s research focuses on the link between metabolic disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer`s disease. Metabolic diseases include type 2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia), and overweight (obesity).

“These metabolic diseases not only cause myocardial infarction and strokes, but emerge as major risk factors for onset and progression of Alzheimer`s disease as well,” the cell biologist points out.

“Patients, suffering from type 2 diabetes display a 3-fold increased risk to develop Alzheimer`s disease. Also, apolipoprotein (APO) E, a regulator of blood cholesterol, represents the most important genetic risk factor for this neurodegenerative disease,” he says. Carriers of a variant of this gene are at a 4-fold higher risk to develop Alzheimer`s compared to other gene carriers.

Dual Role – Novel and Unique Research Project

However, the molecular mechanisms whereby dysregulation of glucose or cholesterol metabolism elicits noxious insults to the brain and causes neurodegeneration are poorly understood.

With the ERC research grant Professor Willnow hopes to shed light on these mechanisms by focusing on a novel class of signalling receptors his research group has been studying intensively since a number of years.

These signalling receptors, named VPS10P receptors for short, are not only involved in the regulation of survival of neurons in the brain, but also in the modulation of glucose and cholesterol metabolism.

Studying the dual role of these receptors is novel and unique, also that neuroscientists and metabolism researchers closely work together in this project.

Alarming Link

“The causal link between metabolism and neurodegeneration is alarming given the fact that metabolic disturbances such as obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and type 2 diabetes show a dramatic rise in incidence worldwide,” Professor Willnow points out.

“And Alzheimer`s disease is the most common form of age-related dementia. Currently there are approximately 35 million patients inflicted worldwide,” Professor Willnow said.

“Given the increasing life expectancy in industrialized countries but also in the emerging economies, the incidence of Alzheimer`s disease is believed to further rise to epidemic proportions in the near future with as much as half of all individuals above 80 years of age being affected,” the researcher warns.

With their research project Professor Willnow and his collaborators hope to gain new insights into the interaction between brain and metabolism. They hope that the unique group of receptors, they are studying now, may hold the key to understanding some of the unifying concepts in metabolic dysfunction and neurodegeneration.

Five ERC Advanced Research Grant Winners at MDC

Professor Willnow is one of five top researchers at the MDC that have been awarded with an ERC Advanced Research grant. Dr. Zsuszanna Izsvák and the two neurobiologists Professor Thomas Jentsch (MDC/Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie, FMP) and Professor Gary Lewin received this grant in 2011, and the immunologist Professor Klaus Rajewsky in 2010.


Barbara Bachtler
Press Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch
in the Helmholtz Association
Robert-Rössle-Straße 10; 13125 Berlin; Germany
Phone: +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 96
Fax:  +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 33

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