How we are hoping to help end neurodegenerative disease

Neurodegenerative disease is one of the greatest unmet medical needs of our time.

Neurodegenerative disease is an unmet medical need that affect millions of people around the world and their families. Alzheimer's alone afflicts an estimated 32% of people 85 or older, according to the Alzheimer's Association – and the disease could affect more people with our aging population. Neurodegenerative disease involves the progressive loss of nerves in the brain or other regions of the body.

Our neuroscience discovery scientists in West Point, Boston and London are working tirelessly to identify ways to treat neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and ALS.

What causes neurodegenerative disease?

As people age, their cells become less efficient at clearing waste proteins. One of the primary causes of neurodegenerative disease is believed to be an accumulation of toxic proteins which cause neurons to die.

What are our scientists researching?

Our scientists are looking at ways to reduce the accumulation of toxic proteins, inside neurons:

  • stopping toxic protein formation,
  • reducing the damage they do and
  • boosting the natural mechanisms that cells use to clear them.

In the lab, cells taken from patients with neurodegenerative disease are studied in the laboratory to explore how they work and how they change with aging. We try out different ideas that we've gained from understanding the normal functions of neurons and then use models to build confidence in the hypotheses. For example, we want to see how aged cells can be altered to behave more like young healthy cells.

We are also investigating the role of the immune system in degenerative diseases. We now know that the immune system plays an important role in Alzheimer's disease – both protecting the brain from damage caused by toxic proteins as well as contributing to inflammation in the brain.

Fiona Marshall, vice president of neuroscience discovery Merck & C°, says, "We can learn from the work we have done in immuno-oncology to study the roles of different immune cell types – we are applying that knowledge in the brain to understand how modulating immune cell function may help alleviate neurodegenerative disease."

Are we studying the role of genetics in neurodegenerative disease?

Advances in genetics are bringing new understanding about disease mechanisms. Previously, researchers focused on the clearly inherited forms of neurodegenerative disease, especially Alzheimer's. However, most people don't inherit Alzheimer's. Now, scientists are able to study multiple changes in the genome across larger populations to look for common genes underlying disease. Interestingly, many of the genes identified in these analyses relate to immune cell function.