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Published on: November 1, 2018
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
With most deadly diseases, an early diagnosis is crucial. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is no different, but it has been challenging to detect. Many people suffer from the disease for years, or even decades, before showing any symptoms. The search for a cure could be helped immeasurably if promising drugs could be tested before the disease progresses to the point where it has caused catastrophic damage to the brain. Even in the absence of a cure, if an individual knows that he or she has AD at an earlier stage, that person can begin making lifestyle changes that might slow the disease’s progression.
While doctors can diagnose AD with a high degree of accuracy with a spinal tap or brain scan, these types of tests are costly and, in the case of the spinal tap, invasive – which is why there is an intense international effort underway to find a blood test that could accurately detect AD.
HAVING AN EFFECTIVE BLOOD TEST CAN LEAD TO MORE EFFECTIVE TREATMENT BECAUSE WE CAN MORE ACCURATELY STUDY WHO HAS AD AND WHO DOESN’T, said Dr. Carmela Tartaglia, a cognitive neurologist with Toronto Western Hospital’s Memory Clinic and a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases.
“Lots of people are working on this because it’s obviously really, really attractive,” Dr. Tartaglia noted in an interview with Mind Over Matter®.
One of the world’s most influential people has now jumped aboard the campaign. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, together with various venture philanthropists, set up a $30 million (U.S.) fund to support research into an inexpensive, non-invasive means of diagnosing AD. When announcing the fund, Gates talked about his father’s experience with this devastating disease and the importance of early detection.
“It’s hard to come up with a game changing new drug without a cheaper and less invasive way to diagnose patients earlier. But most people don’t want to find out if they have the disease earlier when there’s no way to treat it. The commercial market for Alzheimer’s diagnostics simply isn’t there,” Gates observed.
Large pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to engage in this kind of research because the potential profits are uncertain.
To help fill this void, Gates partnered with other high-profile individuals, including Leonard Lauder (the former CEO of the cosmetics conglomerate Estée Lauder), to create a research fund called Diagnostics Accelerator, which he refers to as a “venture philanthropy vehicle” – a means of supporting important work that might not necessarily have a commercial return. Gates describes its goal as developing “a real product for real patients.”
Long before this initiative, there were already several research projects underway, some of which have demonstrated promising results.
“Until recently, I would have been extremely sceptical,” said Dr. Barry Greenberg, who recently became the director of the new Institute for Prevention and Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease at Johns Hopkins University.
“Now there are research projects that demonstrate a blood test that could be feasible,” he said in an interview with Mind Over Matter®.
Early in 2018, a team of researchers from Japan and Australia published a paper in the journal Nature in which they reported having developed a blood test that in clinical trials showed a 90% accuracy rate in detecting a marker for AD. The test searches for signs in the bloodstream of a toxic protein called amyloid beta, which accumulates in the brain as the disease progresses. It also has the ability to differentiate between different types of dementia, which can assist doctors with tailoring their methods to fit the diagnosis.
A 2014 study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Rochester also claimed a 90% accuracy rate with their blood test in predicting the onset of AD. The researchers observed over 500 seniors (70 years of age and older) throughout a five-year period, examining different forms of fats in their bloodstream as a means of predicting the risk of AD. Although much research still needs to be done, the researchers are optimistic that the test will someday be available in doctors’ offices.
BUT EXPERTS SAY THAT ALL OF THE WORK IS STILL AT A RELATIVELY EARLY STAGE, WITH THE TRUE PREDICTIVE VALUE UNPROVEN.
“There’s lots of research being done in this area, but I’m not sure we’re that close,” said Dr. Tartaglia. “For a test to become readily available, it has to show it can pick up amyloid and that it’s better than these other tests [brain scan or spinal tap]. It needs to be at least as good, if not better.”
Spinal taps and brain scans have an accuracy rate above 90%. If a blood test could reach the same level of reliability, it could act as a screening tool to indicate whether further analysis is required for a more definitive diagnosis.
Dr. Greenberg noted that only a few years ago, the concept of a blood test for brain disorders was difficult to imagine, but technology has been game changing. “What we have now are technical abilities to measure what used to be beneath detection. We can see things we couldn’t see before, much as we couldn’t see bacteria before a microscope was invented,” he explained.
“I would not be surprised to see a validated blood test five years from now.” He believes that an effective blood test could eventually become a part of an annual physical, in the same way that doctors test for the potential of heart disease.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V7
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