VIB alumna Kim Plasman is scientific director at the Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek. Between 2008 and 2015, she worked at VIB-UGent Department of Medical Protein Research (now the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology). Under the supervision of Kris Gevaert and Petra Van Damme she studied the substrate specificities of granzymes, a class of serine proteases that induce apoptosis. She traded the academy for industry by becoming application scientist at the Ghent-based life science company Trinean. When Unchained Labs acquired Trinean, she became marketing application scientist. Since May 2018, she combines her scientific and marketing expertise at Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek.
What kind of an organization is ‘Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek’?
Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek is a national, Belgian non-profit organization founded in 1995. The aim of the organization is to promote scientific research into Alzheimer’s disease and related neurological disorders. We provide financial support for basic and clinical research. The focus is on the causes, possible new treatments and ways to prevent dementia. We raise funds from the general population. This can range from small amounts – just a few euros - to large donations through legacies. The Belgian Ministry of Finance has recognized our organization.
We also receive funds from organized activities. For example, in September we try to encourage as many people and companies as possible to bake and sell cupcakes and muffins for World Alzheimer’s Day (September 21). Also in the context of the ‘Warmste Week’ people organize all kinds of activities for the benefit of Alzheimer’s research supported by Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek. Furthermore, we have a close collaboration with the King Baudouin Foundation, which trusts that Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek selects only the most innovative, promising research and thus KBF sponsors some of our projects through their funds.
What is the impact of the foundation?
Every year the foundation launches a call for research projects and scholarships. The ‘standard grants’ are intended for established researchers. Until last year they could apply for a grant of up to 150,000 euros for 2 years. From this year on, this will be up to 225,000 euros for 3 years.
In addition, we are convinced that we should also support promising young researchers. They can submit pilot projects of up to 75,000 euros for 2 years.
The last ten years, we are on a clear growth path. In 2018 we were able to select 20 research projects for a total amount of 2,450,000 euros. That was nearly one million more than the year before. Also for the 2019 applications, we will be able to raise our funding power. In short, over a period of 20 years, we have spent over 14 million euro on 160 research projects.
Many VIB groups have benefitted from donations to the Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek. In the past three rounds, 13 out of 32 standard grants and 9 out of 12 pilot projects were awarded to VIB labs.
Raising and spending money is one thing, how do you select the most promising projects?
Our Scientific Advisory Board of 7 Belgian scientists, all highly experienced in Alzheimer’s research and chaired by Wim Annaert (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research), advises the Board of Directors on the applications to fund. Each application goes through a strict selection procedure based on quality and relevance, including a review by external referees. The Scientific Advisory Board makes the final ranking. Procedures like these guarantee our donors that only the best research projects are financed.
Despite your success in raising funds, how do you counter the growing skepticism about dementia research? In the late 1980’s, bright people claimed that they would crack Alzheimer’s disease before the turn of the century, 30 years later we seem to be nowhere when it comes to medicines that cure the disease.
In those 30 years, we have learned a great deal about the disease, mainly thanks to research funding from many different sources. Alzheimer’s turns out to be much more complex than we thought at the time. The disease starts 15 to 20 years before the first symptoms appear. So we need to intervene much earlier, essentially in people who are still healthy. Moreover, we realize now that dementia is a multifactorial disorder. The biology of APP and tau is only one factor. Obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and social contacts are also factors that tilt the balance in our brains towards dementia. All this has come to light in recent years.
How important is it for your organization to bring donors in contact with researchers?
We are committed to reach out to our sponsors. We inform them in various ways. There is our bimonthly newsletter with a spotlight on research results. This newsletter also includes information about the risks of dementia, healthy nutrition, lifestyle, prevention, treatment etc. Besides the newsletter, we have published brochures and leaflets on how to live with dementia, we organize lectures and performances about Alzheimer’s disease and together with students from the Ritcs and the King Baudouin Foundation we produced a short film with a surprising view on dementia, through the eyes of young people.
Stichting Alzheimer Onderzoek has only funded research projects from individual research groups at Belgian universities and research centers. Is there no willingness to fund international or to focus on collaborative projects?
According to our statutes as a Belgian public utility foundation and because of the authorization to deliver tax certificates we can only fund Belgian research programs. We cannot finance foreign researchers, unless they work at a Belgian university. Therefore, the collected funds must stay in Belgium otherwise we will lose our tax redemption status. Of course, biomedical research, especially in a complex disease like dementia, is no longer a one-man or one-woman enterprise. Collaboration is key to success. Therefore, I do not exclude that we will, at some point, evolve towards sponsoring international and/or collaborative research. For that, we will have to align our efforts with funding organizations in other countries. We are establishing contacts with partner organizations abroad to pave the way for a more collaborative future.