Prof Julie Williams steps down: Celebrating the founding Director's contributions to the UK DRI at Cardiff

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Prof Julie Williams will be stepping down from her role as Director of the UK DRI at Cardiff from July 2024. As founding Director of the Cardiff Centre, Prof Williams established an exceptional research facility that has made significant advances in unravelling the complexities of neurodegenerative disease. Here, we take a look back at some of Prof Williams’ fantastic achievements, and the legacy she leaves behind.

A world-renowned geneticist and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government, Prof Williams joined the UK DRI at Cardiff as Centre Director in 2017. Under Prof Williams’ expert leadership, scientists at the UK DRI at Cardiff have made important fundamental discoveries related to the genetics and risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Alongside her role within the UK DRI, Prof Williams was also Chief Scientific Advisor to Alzheimer Research UK, a member of the Council of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and their champion in Wales. Last week, Prof Williams was awarded the prestigious British Neuroscience Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to Neuroscience.

I am so proud of the team we have created as part of the Centre and have no doubt that their contribution will reduce the burden of these debilitating diseases for future generations. Prof Julie Williams

Since its inception, with Prof Williams at the helm, the UK DRI at Cardiff has attracted over £70 million in research funds. Many exceptional scientists have joined the Centre, including 12 Research Fellows, eight Group Leaders and four Emerging Leaders. Nearly 60 PhD students have trained at the UK DRI at Cardiff.

Researchers at the Centre have:

  • Identified around 100 genes associated with Alzheimer’s risk or earlier onset in Huntington’s disease;
  • Used genomics to identify new patterns in data, identifying those at the highest genetic risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, implicating specific cell types in disease development, and identifying a role for Alzheimer’s risk genes in modifying Parkinson’s;
  • Used genetic discoveries to uncover new disease mechanisms, such as microglial effects on synapses, endocytosis in glial cells, endothelial susceptibility and the complement system in Alzheimer’s, and RNA repair in Huntington’s;
  • Created a bank of 120 induced pluripotent stem cell lines from people with high or low genetic risk to improve modelling of common forms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Although she is stepping down as Centre Director, Prof Williams will continue her association to the UK DRI at Cardiff, through her scientific programme focused on genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, she will continue to lead the Moondance Dementia Research Laboratory.

Prof Williams said:

“This is the right time in my career to step aside from my role as Director to concentrate instead on my own research. This move will also give me more space to focus on directing the scientific research funded by the Moondance Foundation in Cardiff.

I am looking forward to the research opportunities and challenges ahead while also savouring great memories of my time heading up the launch and growth of the UK DRI at Cardiff. I am so proud of the team we have created as part of the Centre and have no doubt that their contribution will reduce the burden of these debilitating diseases for future generations.”

Rob Buckle, Chief Science Officer of the Medical Research Council, said:

“MRC would like to acknowledge and thank Julie for her tremendous contribution to dementia research, and in particular her significant impact in helping unravel the genetic drivers of neurodegeneration and the mechanistic underpinnings of Alzheimer’s disease.

MRC is proud to have supported Julie’s research programmes over a long period of time, and was delighted to see Julie take the helm of the the UK DRI at Cardiff at its inception, both in terms of integrating her own research with other exciting developments and interdisciplinary capabilities, but also for her drive in coalescing and building upon the excellent research base available within Cardiff University. The success of the Centre to date is a testament to her leadership.”

Prof Siddharthan Chandran, UK DRI Director, said:

“We are hugely thankful to Julie for her vision and leadership in establishing the UK DRI at Cardiff, which has made significant strides in understanding the complexities of neurodegenerative disease. I am delighted Julie will continue to be a part of the Institute through her scientific programme.”

Thank you to Prof Paul Morgan, who will act as Interim Centre Director whilst the search for a new Centre Director begins.

Article published: 28 June 2024
Banner image: Welsh Government