Alzheimer’s disease begins to damage the brain years before the first symptoms appear. Scientists are furiously searching for a way of picking up the devastating disorder in those first stages, in the hope that prompt treatment might slow its progression and perhaps someday, with new treatments, stop it altogether.
Now a California company says that it will soon be able to offer a simple blood test that can detect Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages, or perhaps even predict its onset. The test picks up a protein signature in the blood that researchers say is specific to Alzheimer’s.
“We appear to be able to detect it about two years earlier than clinicians,” says Cris McReynolds, president and CEO of Satoris, based in Redwood City, CA. The company was founded in 2003 to develop and commercialize blood-based tests for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Satoris test is nearly 90 percent accurate in identifying people with mild cognitive impairment that progressed to Alzheimer’s disease several years later, according to a study published last year in Nature Medicine by Satoris researchers and others in the United States and Europe. The study “made a splash,” according to Maria Carrillo, director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association. Satoris is now working with collaborators including the Mayo Clinic to validate that data, and the company expects to make the test available to researchers by the end of the year. After that, the company plans to conduct clinical trials and seek FDA approval for a test kit that could be used in clinical settings.
If the test makes it to the market, “that could be a major advance,” says Neil Buckholtz, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s Dementias of Aging branch. (Buckholtz was not involved in the work.) “If we can pick up those changes in the brain at the beginning of the disease process, and we could have drugs that could slow or stop that process, that’s really what we’re trying for,” he says.
At the moment, Alzheimer’s can only be definitively diagnosed after death, by looking for telltale globs of protein in the brain. Doctors presented with a patient with memory loss, language problems, and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease–for which there is no cure–reach a diagnosis by ruling out other causes of dementia, such as stroke. Most of the time they’re right, and their conclusion can later be confirmed by examining the brain after death, but scientists have long been searching for a way of making a definitive diagnosis in a living patient.
Definitively diagnosing Alzheimer’s is a challenge, researchers say, because it’s a complex disease. “We’re understanding more and more of what causes the disorder, but we don’t know for certain,” says David Michelson, vice president of neuroscience at Merck, a pharmaceutical company that is also working on diagnostic biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.