One of the greatest challenges to modern medicine is the fight against Alzheimer’s, the most common form of progressive and disabling degenerative dementia. Each year, 7.7 million patients are diagnosed throughout the world.
Given the difficulty of therapeutic intervention in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, many efforts have recently been made to understand the onset of the disease. One of the main problems of Alzheimer’s is that serious memory deficits are observed after a long period of “incubation”, in which neurodegenerative processes have already begun. Consequently, late diagnosis occurs and there is less chance for therapy.
Early diagnosis is, thus, fundamental and is exactly what a team of scientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has set out to achieve. The team created a new type of test that may be able to detect Alzheimer’s early on and at a reasonable price. Until now, only a special type of positron emission tomography (PET) scan could help detect the risk of onset through the use of a very complex and expensive machine.
If the new test (results published in Neurology) works on a large scale, we would have a new, accurate and easily available instrument to diagnose Alzheimer’s at an incredibly low cost. Anyone, then, could be diagnosed without travelling to specialized structures or undergoing expensive treatments.
How the test works
The test begins by simply taking a blood sample.
Using an instrument called a “mass spectrometer”, the concentration of a certain beta-amyloid in the blood can then be measured. The test focuses on this particular protein because the beta-amyloid has proven to accumulate for years, eventually even forming plaques, in the brains of patients that ultimately manifest Alzheimer’s.
Next, the researchers combined the results with information from other factors, such as the patient’s age and, especially, the presence or lack thereof in the patient’s DNA of the gene “APOE4”, known for multiplying the risk of the disease by five.
The final result is incredibly accurate- 94% accuracy in detecting who will develop Alzheimer’s.
The test must still undergo scientific control processes, but represents an incredible advancement and an unprecedented discovery.
The situation in Italy
There are currently more than 700,000 people in Italy that are affected by a slight cognitive disorder, half of which will progress into a form of dementia (mostly Alzheimer’s) in the next 3 years. These great numbers have also led the research sector in Italy to develop a test – the Interceptor Project.
The project is coordinated by the that leads the participation of a network of 20 Italian neurological structures. This ambitious project is supported and promoted by the and the , with the collaboration of the and the .
The director of Neurology at the University of Policlinico A. Gemelli in Rome, Paolo Maria Rossini, applauded the results of his American colleagues, emphasizing that the results were similar to those achieved in the Italian study last year. According to Rossini, this is an excellent sign that research in this area is gaining momentum, but he also launches an appeal for more investments.
The most important thing about this test is that it is able to achieve an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s on all fronts so that it becomes routine clinical practice.
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