Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a major brain disease, afflicting about 18 million elderly people worldwide. This figure will rise with increasing longevity, so there is an urgent need for effective treatment. The brains of AD sufferers contain many abnormal deposits called plaques and tangles, which are thought to play a crucial role in the disease. However, the causes of their formation and of the disease itself are unknown.
We have been investigating whether a common virus has a role in AD. We found that many elderly people harbour this virus within their brain but only those who have a specific genetic factor are at risk of developing AD. Subsequently we discovered that the viral DNA is located specifically within plaques; also, infection with this virus causes production of the main components of plaques and tangles (called beta-amyloid and abnormal tau), indicating that the virus might be a cause of these abnormal deposits.
Our recent experiments with antiviral agents indicate that they might be an effective treatment to slow AD progression in that they decrease the levels of beta-amyloid and abnormal tau which the virus induces. Also, the future possibility exists of prevention of the disease by vaccination against the virus.
I was educated at St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, where I was a junior and senior Foundation Scholar. Afterwards, I studied for a BSc in physics, then worked for an MSc in Biophysics - being awarded one of the only two studentships then available in that subject - and finally proceeded to a PhD in Biophysics - all London University degrees.
I then moved to Cambridge, working in the University Department of Radiotherapeutics. I held a Beit Memorial Fellowship for Medical Research and the Wheldale-Onslow Memorial Fellowship (and Praelectorship) at Newnham College. One paper I published in Cambridge became a "citation classic". My next move was to Manchester where I worked initially in the Paterson Laboratories and subsequently in the Department of Optometry and Neuroscience, UMIST.
My research topics have been diverse: iron-binding in plasma; effects of ionising radiation on natural and synthetic macromolecules; chromatin structure (I was the first to use polylysine and a nuclease to investigate this); effects of irradiation on chromatin; carcinogens and chromatin; viruses and neurological disease. More recently I have been studying Alzheimer's disease, in particular defective DNA repair, aluminium, and in most detail, the role of viruses acting with a genetic factor in dementia. For the virus work (see Research) I won an Investigator award from the Lancet, a Wellcome Trust Innovative award, two Olympus Foundation awards, an Alzheimer's Research Forum award and a Manchester City Council award. Our other research topic, which stems from the Alzheimer's disease work, is on the role of the same genetic factor in determining outcome of infection by pathogens.
I am married; my husband is a scientist, and we have non-identical twin daughters, both scientists. I love music (am an ex-pianist and violinist) - particularly "early" music and that of Bach - followed by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms - reading, travelling (or rather, arriving), and swimming and snorkeling in warm seas.