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Lighting up tau – acoustically-mediated delivery of radiolabelled antibodies for Alzheimer’s disease theranostics

   Department of Surgical & Interventional Engineering

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  Dr A Pouliopoulos, Dr M Ma  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Aim of the PhD Project 

Acoustically deliver radiolabelled anti-tau antibodies into the brain for simultaneous diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 

Project description/background 

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a debilitating neurodegenerative pathology with a formidable societal burden, which is constantly increasing. The gradual accumulation of amyloid and tau is considered to be the molecular hallmark of AD. Current methods for confirming the AD diagnosis include amyloid detection through either a lumbar puncture or amyloid PET imaging. However, amyloid accumulation occurs throughout the brain and is not temporally proximal to symptom onset. Furthermore, multiple clinical trials focused on amyloid reduction have not signalled a breakthrough in terms of treatment outcomes. On the other hand, tau tangles are typically detected within brain areas affected by AD. Additionally, tau accumulation is directly related to symptom worsening, likely due to the presence of both extracellular and intracellular tangles which correlate with neuronal depletion and cognitive decline.

In this project, we aim to “light up” tau and follow its accumulation and/or clearance over time in a murine AD model. We will develop 89Zr-labelled IgG antibodies targeting phosphorylated tau. 89Zr has a half-life of 3.1 days, which allows serial PET imaging for over a week. IgG antibodies typically have a poor penetration profile across the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The combined use of focused ultrasound (FUS) and microbubbles can overcome the BBB in a non-invasive and localized way. FUS-mediated delivery of 89Zr-labelled antibodies is hypothesized to increase the tracer uptake into the targeted brain areas. The primary pillar of this project is thus imaging of the tau load in AD-affected areas, such as the hippocampus, through the enhanced delivery of an IgG-based PET tracer in both wild-type and transgenic rTg4510 mice.  At the same time, recent data suggest that acoustically-mediated BBB opening reduces both amyloid and tau in the brain of transgenic AD mice, even in the absence of an anti-amyloid or anti-tau drug. The proposed mechanism is based on an immune response triggered by this intervention, which entails albumin-mediated microglia activation and lysosomal activity or autophagy. The downstream trafficking and clearance mechanism of amyloid and tau is currently under investigation. Additionally, FUS treatments trigger neurogenesis and angiogenesis, leading to behavioural improvement in both wild-type and transgenic rodents, compared to pre-FUS. Here, we will investigate the clearance rate and route of tau both at the short-term (hours) and the long-term (weeks), through serial PET imaging of 89Zr-labelled antibodies. We hypothesize that the combined action of FUS-triggered immune response and active binding of the IgG to phosphorylated tau will have a therapeutic effect, by either delaying or even halting tau accumulation and symptom deterioration. The latter will be tested with behavioural tests (e.g., Morris water maze) of memory-impaired rTg4510 transgenic mice. Therefore, the second pillar of this project will be to establish the therapeutic effect of delivering tau-binding antibodies using FUS. 

We are looking for an enthusiastic candidate with a background in physics, engineering, biomedical engineering, chemistry, biology, or any related STEM field. Applicants are encouraged to contact the lead supervisor (Dr. Pouliopoulos) before applying. Applications for the CDT in Smart Medical Imaging will open in November 2022 for a September 2023 start.

Further information is available on the CDT in Smart Medical Imaging site here.

Duration: 4 years

Salary: ca £18,000 pa


Dr. Antonios Pouliopoulos, Department of Surgical & Interventional Engineering, King’s College London, [Email Address Removed]

Dr. Michelle Ma, Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, King’s College London, [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Home students:
Home students will be eligible for a full UKRI award, covering fees and a stipend, if they satisfy UKRI criteria, including residency requirements.
International students:
International students will be eligible for full UKRI-funded studentships, including fees (at the Home level) and a stipend. The difference between the Home and International fee will normally be covered by King’s College London for appointed international candidates. Studentships for international students will, however, be limited in number (to around three to four per year) and registered at King’s College London (projects need to be led by a KCL supervisor).
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