Researchers have made a breakthrough in the war against Alzheimer’s disease with the creation of a simple blood test that can detect the early stages of the progressive brain disorder with remarkable accuracy.
Working out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the team of international researchers was able to identify 19 of the 429 plasma proteins associated with Alzheimer’s and form a biomarker panel indicative of an “AD signature” within the blood. The team used this panel to create a scoring system that was 96 per cent accurate in identifying Alzheimer’s patients from healthy individuals.
“With the advancement of ultrasensitive blood-based protein detection technology, we have developed a simple, non-invasive and accurate diagnostic solution for AD, which will greatly facilitate population-scale screening and staging of the disease,” said Prof. Nancy Ip, Morningside Professor of Life Science and the Director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience at HKUST.
Doctors currently rely on cognitive testing to identify the presence of the disease, which is believed to be the result of the accumulation of certain proteins in the brain that lead to the slow death of neurons. This process eventually produces symptoms of memory loss, difficulty thinking or problem solving and changes in mood and behaviour. Beyond clinical assessment, brain imaging and lumbar puncture are two valuable tools doctors use to diagnose the disease, but the procedures are costly, invasive and not widely available.
There are over 500,000 Canadians living with dementia today with another 25,000 diagnosed with the progressive disease every year, according to the Alzheimer Society. Two-thirds of those diagnosed over the age of 65 are women. With the rate at which the disease is growing, it costs over $12-billion a year to care for patients.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Alzheimer’s is that by the time symptoms begin to present themselves, the degenerative disorder is often too advanced for doctors to provide any meaningful medical intervention. On average, people live three to 11 years after being diagnosed, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Because the new test is accurate enough to detect the presence of Alzheimer’s in its early, intermediate and late stages — and chart the course of the disease over time — new therapeutic treatments may only be a matter of time for the roughly 50 million people worldwide who are affected.
Alzheimer’s has been receiving widespread attention since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to the first new drug for treatment of the disease in almost 20 years. But aducanumab — which received approval earlier this month despite fierce debate over whether or not it actually works — is intended for use by patients with mild cognitive decline, not advanced dementia. The drug, which is administered intravenously once a month, can cost up to US$50,000 per year for a high dose.
The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review estimated that the drug should cost no more than US$8,300 annually, adding there is not enough evidence that the benefits of the drug outweigh the harms or helps reduce progression of the disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association, however, welcomed the news. “This approval is a victory for people living with Alzheimer’s and their families,” Harry Johns, the president and CEO of the group, said in a statement.
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca