The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth is part of a crusade to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers there are working to advance detection methods that identify the onset of Alzheimer’s so that patients can begin taking better care of their health to delay or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. “In the Alzheimer’s world, we don’t detect the disease until it’s pretty advanced. If someone is clinically diagnosable with Alzheimer’s, it has been going on for years,” said Sid O’Bryant, interim director of the Institute for Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the Center. “We need to be able to detect it earlier and earlier so we can create new ways to prevent the disease itself and do early treatment so we can be most effective in treating our patients.”
O’Bryant is the leader of a team of scientists who have spent the last decade developing and refining a serum protein-based blood test. It is hoped that the screening tool can be used to identify neurological disease through a simple, inexpensive procedure conducted during a patient’s standard annual physical. A blood test would be more objective than patients identifying memory concerns. “When you consider the average length of time [for an annual exam] is 18 minutes, even brief cognitive assessments are difficult to fit into that,” said O’Bryant. “At the annual exam, when people are getting their normal blood work, this blood test can be added to it. It doesn’t change the physician’s or the patient’s time.” Currently, O’Bryant is waiting on a potential $6 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue studying the test in 3,000 patients in the Fort Worth area.
The serum protein-based blood test is analogous to another test eliciting excitement in the Alzheimer’s research field. A study from the University of Rochester published earlier this month in Nature Medicine used a lipid-based blood test to predict with over 90% accuracy Alzheimer’s disease onset in patients within 2-3 years of the day of testing. The test involved a panel of 10 specific lipids that are generally found at lower-than-normal levels in the blood of people with cognitive impairment and are a product of brain cell deterioration at early stages of disease onset. “Current efforts to develop a treatment for this disease are coming up short because they are probably being used too late,” said Dr. Mark Mapstone, a neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “Biomarkers that can allow us to intervene early in the course of the disease could be a game-changer.”
Although it may be a long way off until a predictive blood test for Alzheimer’s is available to the public, Dr. Diana Kerwin, director of Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, said, “This is a good step to say that this might be used to identify someone at higher risk that we might enroll in therapy or give medication [during clinical trials].” However, some individuals, such as Barrie Page Hill of Arlington, Texas, would be hesitant to use predictive tests in doctor’s offices. As the daughter and caretaker of Bobbie Wilburn, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago, Hill stated, “For some families, it might be helpful to know what is up ahead. Do I want to know right now? Honestly, probably not. I’m dealing with all I can deal with. I’m caring for my mom. I wouldn’t want to worry about me.” But on the other hand, Hill does recognize that the study is “incredible” in that it could help people prepare for the disease.
Wilburn is one of an estimated 5.1 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, and the costs for an elderly patient with dementia range from $41,000 to $56,000 per year. Patients and their families must make radical life changes and suffer from incidences related to memory loss. “It was excruciating for us,” said Hill. “It’s a horrible, horrible disease…. This is a long-term illness that she will have for the rest of her life. It would be tremendous if they could find a cure for this.”