Four universities have been given substantial financial support for research into tau plaques – the key proteins that build up in the brain causing Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
Scientists at Aston University in Birmingham, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Manchester will use stem cells to create a tau model.
This will help them gain a better understanding of how the protein works so that new drugs can be developed.
Stem cells can be adapted to create other cell types, enabling the researchers to mimic the action of these cells in their laboratories.
If the teams can develop the kinds of cells which suffer damage from tau, it will allow them to try out a variety of compounds aimed at minimising the protein's impact.
The first phase of research will last for six months and the team which has been founded to have made the greatest progress will be provided with a further three years of funding worth up to £1 million.
Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, which is partly funding the project, said: "We hope that compounds to target this protein could hold potential to treat these diseases, but in order to develop such a compound it’s crucial to have robust test systems with which to measure the effects of potential drugs accurately.
"The task these researchers are taking on is not an easy one, but this work could have important implications for the development of much-needed new treatments for these diseases."
The competition is being led by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reductions of Animals in Research (NC3R).
Dr Vicky Robinson, the body's chief executive, said that studies such as this not only have the potential to help dementia patients, they can also lower costs and reduce the number of animals needed in tests.
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