Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have developed a new type of blood test that predicts whether individuals will develop Alzheimer’s disease or other similar cognitive problems within three years. It has an accuracy rate of 90 percent.
The key development that resulted in the potential to identify individuals at risk for progressive cognitive decline was identification of 10 biomarkers that are the basis of the new test, according to Medical News Today. Findings of the study appeared in the journal Nature Medicine.
In excess of 5 million U.S. adults are living with Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association reports. The disease is the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death. Experts predicted that in 2013, the illness would cost $203 billion. Additional estimates suggest that by 2050, the U.S. price tag will reach $1.2 trillion.
According to PubMed Health, Alzheimer’s sufferers develop one of two forms of the disorder. In early-onset patients, symptoms are noticeable prior to age 60. This is the less-common form. Late-onset occurs in those who are at least 60.
There is no cure for either type. The goal of healthcare providers remains helping patients manage the symptoms that make everyday routines difficult. Experts have long believed that the reason no drugs have been developed to cure or retard the illness is because they weren’t tested on patients early enough in the progression of the disease.
As a result, the Georgetown researchers focused on detecting Alzheimer’s at a pre-clinical stage. They specifically looked for certain molecules or biomarkers that circulate in the bloodstream before the disease gains a foothold.
The team used more than 500 subjects older than 70. On a yearly basis for five years, the scientists measured memory and mental skills and took blood samples. They then compared data from 53 subjects who developed either Alzheimer’s disease of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to information from 53 healthy patients. Using mass spectrometry, they looked closely at blood samples.
In most of the subjects with Alzheimer’s or MCI, 10 phospholipids in blood samples occurred at significantly lower levels than those found in the healthy patients, suggesting signs of cell break downs. Phospholipids are fatty substances that make up an important part of cell membranes. Testing another group with 41 subjects validated these results.
Analyzing the lipid panel distinguished those normal patients who would progress to either MCI or Alzheimer’s within two or three years from those who would retain normal cognition. The test proved 90 percent accurate.
While a potential breakthrough, the blood test is just one step toward producing a biomarker test useful on a large scale. One issue still to be solved is the fate of the remaining 10 percent of patients. Additional progress will require longer and larger studies with more diverse groups of subjects. Another concern is whether patients would benefit from knowing their fate in advance.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.