26 August 2020

Professor Glenda Halliday from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and the Brain and Mind Centre received NHMRC’s Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Award at this year’s NHMRC Research Excellence Awards. Her research aims to identify and understand the pathobiology of non-Alzheimer dementias and degenerative motor syndromes. These syndromes are currently under-recognised, mainly affect people in their prime, can kill rapidly, and have no mechanistic therapies. 

Professor Halliday says that neurodegenerative diseases are among the most feared illnesses in society because they are so common and they rob people of their minds and physical capabilities.

Approximately one person every six minutes is clinically diagnosed with a degenerative dementia in Australia. Around 30 new cases of the most common neurodegenerative movement disorders, Parkinson’s disease, are clinically diagnosed per day in Australia.

“These diseases have devastating impacts for those affected and place a huge economic and social burden on our community.”

“There are still so many questions to be answered in this field of research. When and where do neurodegenerative syndromes actually start at a cellular level in the brain/nervous system, and why for most is age the main risk factor for their clinical expression?” 

These knowledge gaps hinder the development and implementation of any mechanistic treatments for these syndromes.

Professor Halliday’s research has underpinned the neuropathological diagnosis of Lewy body diseases and frontotemporal dementias. It has highlighted broader pathological involvement in Parkinson's disease and especially in dementia with Lewy bodies, with recent work suggesting lysosome dysfunction and immunity are involved. 

In the non-Alzheimer frontotemporal dementias, the first large scale studies were initiated in Professor Halliday’s laboratory and form the basis for both pathological and clinical staging of these syndromes, with recent work targeting their biological basis.

“To develop this research, I established the Sydney Brain Bank and associated longitudinal brain donor programs for neurodegenerative diseases. This has allowed these fundamental new discoveries and has changed clinical diagnostic criteria for these patients.

“The funding from NHMRC will allow me to find preclinical biomarkers that identify the under-recognised non-Alzheimer diseases, as there are no treatments and they are more lethal than Alzheimer’s.

“It will allow me to do molecular studies using state-of-the-art techniques on samples of peripheral tissues (blood, skin, saliva) from people at high risk and will identify new early preclinical diagnostic tools and methods for these currently untreatable disorders.” 

“It was a fantastic surprise to receive an award for my research. It is not what I do the research for, but it is nice for the quality of the work to be acknowledged. It inspires me to focus more on research that will make a difference to people.”

“My vision is to continue to develop significant research capacity in non-Alzheimer dementias and motor syndromes, and to coalesce Australian research capacity in these areas so that significant medical advances can be made.”

We know that earlier and better diagnostic tools are desperately needed and, should Professor Halliday have a wish, it would be a full understanding of the different cellular triggers and mechanisms underlying these diseases for appropriate therapeutic target development. 

Professor Halliday aspires to make a difference to the lives of people with neurodegenerative conditions and hopes her research will find answers to some of the many unanswered questions that come from such complex and misunderstood diseases.