What if scientists could tell you whether or not you would get Alzheimer’s disease? It seems like a far-off fantasy, but that is the reality thanks to a new blood test.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that involves the death and degeneration of brain cells and their connections. It’s the most feared disease after cancer, with 160,000 Australians currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it’s expected that 170,000 New Zealanders will be suffering from it by 2050.
Typically, it starts off as a slow process, with the most common initial symptom being short-term memory loss. As the disease advances, sufferers can then experience disorientation, motivational loss, behavioural issues, language difficulties, and poor self-care. Eventually, the disease takes hold of bodily functions and speech, before the sufferer usually dies between three and nine years after diagnosis.
Detection up to this point has been time-consuming and expensive. Lumbar punctures, spinal fluid analysis, and PET scans are all standard detection methods, but they can’t predict the progression of the disease, nor provide any leads to further treatment or screening. However, now, thanks to Australian and Japanese scientists, a more straightforward detection process awaits in the wings.
A blood test, which has the potential to identify those at risk of Alzheimer’s three decades before severe symptoms present themselves, may be able to revolutionise current Alzheimer’s research and treatment methods. Those at risk merely give a sample of blood and have it tested for the presence of a type of peptide in the blood. The peptide that researchers are looking for confirms the presence of a protein called amyloid beta which builds up in those who have Alzheimer’s.
Current research on blood tests using techniques fronted by Japanese researcher Dr. Kiochi Tanaka, have been successful. As a result, the future is looking bright for speeding up clinical trials, providing routine screening for the condition, and eventually working toward treatment methods that clear the amyloid beta protein. However, because it’s in its infancy stages, there is still a way to go until the test is commonplace.
Study co-author Professor Colin Masters from the University of Melbourne said the testing is highly specialised and involves a sensitive mass spectrometry technique to measure low levels of peptide. It was first trialled on two groups: 121 in a Japanese group, and 252 in an Australian group. The trial groups included those who were healthy, were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and had mild cognitive decline. The accuracy of determining who was at risk of developing Alzheimer’s was over 90 percent.
Over the next 12 months, the research team will be screening participants for clinical trials, but hope that before long, the blood test as a detection method could be streamlined and made efficient for clinical practice throughout the world.
Research for the second-most feared disease has been progressing slowly for some years, but this blood test may just mark the beginning of something significant in the Alzheimer’s field, and a rapid increase in additional studies taking place.