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Dementia expert pays tribute to Terry Pratchett

Biochemist Louise Serpell at work in her lab at University of Sussex

An expert on Alzheimer’s disease whose research team benefited from a major donation by Terry Pratchett has praised the author’s contribution to raising awareness of the disease.

The writer of the Discworld novels died on Thursday (12 March), seven years after revealing he had a rare form of dementia.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett spoke openly about his symptoms and how they affected his life. He highlighted the need for more research into its causes – and contributed funds himself for this research.

Louise Serpell, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Sussex and the leader of a research team that benefited from a $1 million donation by the novelist, says: “For me, Pratchett’s incredibly important legacy was to highlight the need for Alzheimer’s research funding.

“This resulted in increased backing to charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK which inevitably allowed  more researchers to search for the cause and the cure.”

And she goes further, arguing that Pratchett’s efforts “also led to serious political changes, bringing dementia into the focus of UK and international governments”.

Alzheimer’s disease is just one type of dementia, a degenerative disease that causes problems with thinking and memory.

People with the disease have deposits in their brain tissue made up of two different proteins and these two proteins are important in the neurodegeneration that leads to memory loss.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and the medicines now available can only reduce symptoms and cannot stop the deterioration or reverse the damage.

Professor Serpell recalls: “In 2008, we applied for funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK and were delighted to be funded to research the mechanisms that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We later learned that the funding had been made possible by Pratchett’s donation.

“We used the money to bring together an international research group to focus our research to understand how one of the proteins involved with Alzheimer’s (Amyloid-beta) interacts with the membranes which surround cells.

“Pratchett’s funding allowed us to recruit a number of young scientists to work on this difficult problem, bringing new expertise to the projects.

“These were exciting times; we worked hard with our collaborators and were able to show that different structures of Amyloid-beta were responsible for the effects on the brain tissues in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Professor Serpell explains that scientific research “tends to consist of slow and painstaking work by many scientists working together making small steps towards better understanding”.

She says: “Our work was published and went on to influence the work of other scientists who used it to explore new avenues of research and to build upon our discoveries. We then were influenced by their work, and so on.

“The funding made possible by Pratchett’s donation shaped our work and, seven years on, has resulted in further successful funding from government grants and other charities. Without his generous contribution, we would not be at the stage that we are now.”

Professor Serpell is keen to remind funding bodies and policy makers that, “Although we have sadly lost the eloquent voice of Pratchett himself we must not forget the message he left us with.”

She urges: “We need to continue striving to find the cause and the cure of this disease that affects so many of our friends and family members.”

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Posted on behalf of: School of Life Sciences
Last updated: Tuesday, 17 March 2015

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