Early Test Hope For Alzheimer’s - Action Research study makes crucial inroads
19 December 2002
When Coronation Street’s Audrey Roberts was falsely accused of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease the Rover’s Return regular was distraught.
Was she really losing her memory and her mind, or was she being framed by her wicked son-in-law?
We might scoff at this latest soap storyline, but Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease for which there is currently no clear clinical method of diagnosis. The search for an early and reliable diagnostic test is considered as important as the search for a cure.
Thanks to funding by medical charity Action Research, however, a team of scientists have developed a diagnostic test that might offer fresh hope. Although the research is in its infancy, the potential benefits to sufferers and their families could be significant.
In a two-year Action Research grant, which has just come to a close, Professor David Allsop, a Professor of Neuroscience at Lancaster University, has developed a test that tracks down a protein called amyloid which is commonly found in abnormal amounts in patients with the disease.
Outside the world of TV soaps, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disorder that causes heartache to real-life people and their families. It’s the most common cause of dementia in old age and strikes one in 10 of all individuals over 70 years old, which accounts for about 750,000 in the UK.
Recent reports estimated that this figure could shoot up to 1.5 million by the year 2050 as the population ages.
The disease manifests itself in forgetfulness and confusion, which in its severe form can strip an individual of their former personality and the ability to communicate. After decades of a happy marriage, for example, a husband or wife may no longer recognise their beloved.
High-profile patients include novelist Iris Murdoch and former US President Ronald Reagan.
One of the biggest hurdles for improved treatment and effective clinical trials is accurately distinguishing the disease from other causes of dementia. But currently, a clear diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only be made by examination of brain tissue after death. The researchers are particularly interested in studying the protein, amyloid, which accumulates in the brain as ‘clumps’ or ‘fibres’. It’s this clumped form of amyloid that the new test specifically detects. With funding of more than £70,000 from Action Research, the team has now developed and refined the test (known as an assay), using a synthetic (imitated) form of amyloid.
Clinical samples are now being introduced into laboratory tests, to analyse the levels of amyloid among living sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease; for example by looking at the cerebrospinal fluid that coats the brain, which can be obtained from the spine. These will eventually be matched against samples from a healthy control group.
The assay is also being used to find what could potentially inhibit the formation of amyloid, helping to identify potential new drugs.
Professor Allsop, who is renowned for his work into Alzheimer’s research, admits that the project is still in its early stages, but he is optimistic the research will play a key part in a ‘battery’ of therapies in the future.
He says: ‘Alzheimer’s can be a terrible disease that robs people of relationships and quality of life. In most cases it takes a long time for the symptoms to become apparent. In order to treat the disease effectively we must identify it in its early stages. There is no point in having a cure if we don’t know whom exactly to treat.
‘If the assay works it could potentially be extremely useful in identifying a group of patients, and developing and applying therapeutic drugs. This diagnostic test would be simple, straightforward, and one which any clinical laboratory could use.’
Tracy Swinfield, Director of Research at Action Research said: ‘The Charity strives to overcome disease and disability through funding only the best in medical research, and devising a reliable diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s disease is an extremely important goal; the potential benefits could be considerable.’
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