Royal College of Surgeons Ireland Develops New Blood Test for Early Stage Alzheimer’s
Dementia affects approximately 160,000 Australians, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common type. Alzheimer’s affects 48 million people worldwide and accounts for 50-75% of dementia cases, especially amongst elderly people. Elderly women are also at a slightly higher risk than men of developing the disease. According to Ozcare, “Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative condition that affects the brain, causing permanent changes to a person’s memory, thinking and behaviour. The symptoms are mild to begin with but get progressively worse over time”.
Alzheimer’s damages and kills brain cells in those affected, disturbing the healthy nerve cells that allow the brain to communicate throughout the body. Dementia affects around 10% of people aged 65+, with 20% of those suffering from severe dementia when they are over 80. An Access Economics report authorised by Alzheimer’s Australia suggested that, “The number of people with dementia in Australia will be 25% higher by 2050 than was predicted in 2003”.
Due to the devastating effects Alzheimer’s can have on people and their loved ones, it’s no surprise that the news of a new blood test that can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease was greatly received. No new test has passed a clinical trial in 20 years, so this four-year study marks an important time in dementia and health research.
Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have said that they have developed a new blood test that can detect Alzheimer’s disease even in its early stages, and also predict how the disease could process. This new test can help with earlier diagnosis of people affected by Alzheimer’s, which could then improve their quality of life. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) states, “This work was supported by funding from Science Foundation Ireland under the COEN initiative (NEUROmiR) and RCSI under the Strategic Academic Recruitment (StAR) Programme”.
So how does the new test work? According to science and technology correspondent Will Goodbody from Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Ireland’s National Public Service Broadcaster, “The test analyses the changes in concentration of a small molecule called microRNA in the blood and can enable diagnosis even when symptoms are mild.”
“It is also capable of distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other brain diseases with similar symptoms and of predicting how the disease will develop.”
“The discovery is important as up to 25,000 people in Ireland have Alzheimer’s, and as the population here and globally ages, the number of cases is expected to rise significantly,” he said.
There is currently a lot of research being conducted on developing new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease. A lot of the failure of previous clinical trials is often thought to be because they have been tested at advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, when the damage to the brain is irreversible. The test is one of many presented by early stage researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons on the annual Ireland Research Day, held in Dublin on 7th March this year.
Although this new test is pivotal for Alzheimer’s disease research, new methods are needed. For a more accurate trial, there needs to be new affordable and less invasive diagnostic methods so larger groups of people can be tested. Not only would this help the detection of larger groups of people, it would also create a clearer understanding of how the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease works, and how accurate this new test can be for early detection of the disease. According to RCSI, “For treatments to be successful, the early stages preceding the full onset of Alzheimer’s need to be targeted. At present, there is no blood test available to clinicians that can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease”.
When asked when the test is likely to be available, Dr Tobias Engel, the project’s principal investigator and lecturer in physiology at RCSI, said, “We are still at the stage of clinical testing. I would predict, if everything goes well, we are talking about five years”.
“People are living longer today and because of this, the incidence of age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s will rise.”
Dr Engel further explained that research into Alzheimer’s disease is currently focused on developing a range of new therapies for patients.
“Research into the condition is largely focussed on the development of new therapies, however, new therapies need diagnostic methods which are affordable and minimally invasive and can be used to screen large populations,” he said.
Dr Engel is currently working with his clinical colleagues to advance the new research to make it readily available as a test for patients.
Other studies at this year’s Ireland Research Day included a new way to diagnose lung cancer through a patient’s breath and also a new treatment to target invasive lobular carcinoma, an under-studied and resistant form of breast cancer. As one-in-three patients with this type of cancer do not respond well to traditional anti-hormonal treatments, the researchers found that combining two existing drugs may be a strategy that could treat it. Research lecturer at RCSI’s department of physiology and medical physics, Tríona Ní Chonghaile, explained that using the two drugs together showed a greater increase in cancer cell death for patients.