Research into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia wins Queen’s doctor major award

A prestigious scholarship award made for the first time ever outside the United States has been won by a Queen's University medical graduate.

Dr Bernadette McGuinness, from Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, was awarded the £228,000 Paul B. Beeson Career Development Award for her proposed research into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Graduating with an MD in 2006, Dr McGuinness’s research specifically focussed on neuropsychological changes and genetics in early Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. This unique study background enabled her to develop a research proposal that saw off national competition.

Working closely with the Dementia Research Group from Queen’s School of Medicine (Drs Peter Passmore, Janet Johnston and David Craig), Dr McGuinness’s research proposal relates to an enzyme thought to be involved in the Alzheimer’s process. The team studied activity of an enzyme in platelets from peripheral blood samples and found that the activity was elevated in patients with Alzheimer’s.

Dr McGuinness said: “This is very significant since there is no easy diagnostic test for this major neurodegenerative condition and being able to detect relevant markers of this brain disease in peripherally accessed blood samples represents a significant advance.”

Furthermore the research process offers the possibility of monitoring development aspects of the disease.

Dr McGuinness continued: “Since the Alzheimer process has usually been developing for some time in the brain and hence is very well advanced before patients go to the doctor, we wondered if the activity of this enzyme could be higher in people before they actually turn up and are diagnosed. In a small preliminary study this seemed to be the case. “

The team will now undertake a major in-depth study of people with a mild memory loss condition called Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is thought in many cases to be a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease. People will be assessed over time in the clinic using detailed memory assessments, neuroimaging (specific X-rays of the brain) with the activity of this enzyme in the platelets being measured.

Speaking of her award, Dr McGuinness said, “I am very excited to receive this scholarship. It means that we can further develop our understanding of the critical illness that is Alzheimer’s disease, the biggest challenge among all age-related diseases.

“I feel very privileged to be the first Beeson scholar outside of the United States.”

The Beeson Award is a career development award made to high calibre individuals seeking to advance research into ageing and medicine for older people. Candidates must also have the support of a team in an institution recognised as having a commitment to ageing research and teaching. In 2007 the award was opened to people living and working in Ireland for the first time and Dr McGuinness is the first recipient. She now joins an elite list of Beeson scholars, and received her scholarship at a special conference in New York on 21-24 June.

Dr Passmore, Reader and mentor to Dr McGuinness, said: “This is very significant achievement by Dr McGuinness. It is an acknowledgement of her ability and will enable her to pursue a career in research, teaching and clinical work with older people. It is also an international recognition of the excellence of the research programme in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias by our team at Queen’s University.”

The award will allow Dr McGuinness and the Queen’s team to continue to pursue important research in Alzheimer’s disease, which is one of the major challenges facing us with an increasing ageing of the population that is occurring in Ireland and internationally.

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