AN Alzheimer’s charity has praised a research breakthrough using Oxfordshire’s synchrotron microscope.

The Alzheimer’s Society said the work of the Diamond Light Source facility at Harwell’s Science and Innovation Campus had added to knowledge of the disease.

So far the doughnut-shaped facility has helped the study of everything from fossils to jet engines to viruses and vaccines.

Now three universities have used it to study a protein found in the sufferers’ of the disease, the UK’s most common form of dementia. The protein is found in sufferers’ brains in the same place as a higher than normal level of toxic iron that is thought to damage cells. It has not been clear if the protein was linked to the iron levels.

But the study found that the protein is capable of converting healthy iron levels to the toxic form.

It is hoped more research can now be carried out into treatments to stop or manage the change.

Alzheimer’s Society director of research and development Dr Doug Brown, said: “This study suggests that the protein may cause iron to turn into its toxic form, leading to damage to brain cells. Why this might happen and how it can be stopped are important future avenues for research.”

Yet he said: “We still don’t know what causes the condition and there are only limited treatments available. We desperately need more research.”

Research officer Jess Smith added: “It is always exciting to have British companies involved in dementia research, especially when it helps to bring people from a range of disciplines together. This particular research uses interesting techniques to help confirm findings that previous studies have shown.”

The synchrotron opened in 2007 with Government funding and is free to use.

Its CEO Andrew Harrison said: “It is always wonderful to see a piece of research come out of Diamond Light Source which has the potential to have a positive impact on people’s lives.”

The work was completed using other synchrotrons and led by Keele, Warwick and Florida universities. Keele’s Dr Neil Telling, who led the research, said: “It’s at an early stage but these promising results seem to be another piece of the jigsaw to fully understand Alzheimer’s.”