Thursday, June 26, 2008

Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosis Could be in the Eye of the Beholder

At last week’s BIO conference in San Diego, a panel of scientists and physicians focused on the “Advances in Biomarkers and Diagnostics in Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Psychiatric Disorders.” Biomarkers are emerging as a priority research area as they hold the potential for swifter diagnosis of disease even when symptoms are silent. Early diagnosis in combination with early intervention will yield far more effective treatment options and disease management strategies. In addition, biomarkers can facilitate disease monitoring to more efficiently determine patient’s response to current treatment regimens.

According to the Biomarkers Consortium, a collaborative public-private partnership managed by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, biomarkers are objective measurements of biological processes that can substantially improve the precision with which we evaluate disease risk, diagnosis, and progression, and guide treatment. They also promise to revolutionize both the development and use of therapeutics. In some cases, they may allow for earlier “go/no go” decisions in developing treatments and help shave years and cost off the development process by providing a clearer indication of a treatment’s efficacy, dosage, or safety. Biomarkers are the foundation of evidence-based medicine, making the practice of medicine more personalized, predictive, and preemptive.

The advancement of biomarker science is particularly important for patients suffering from AD for which the current diagnosis takes approximately two years and consists of a complex “process of elimination” based upon cognitive symptoms. A biomarker for AD would impact this field of medicine dramatically, allowing for earlier treatment and more accurate monitoring -- greatly needed to fight an impending AD epidemic.

AD is characterized by large amounts of plaques of beta-amyloid in the brain. Beta-amyloid is formed when amyloid precursor protein an important protein for neuron growth and repair is severed by enzymes. Four years ago, Lee Goldstein from Boston University, featured on the panel, and his research team found that these amyloid plaques also collect in the lens of eyes in people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and causes an unusual cataract that is different from common age-related cataracts.

The first biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease was identified. Goldstein’s discovery established the first evidence of Alzheimer’s-linked pathology outside the brain, and led Goldstein and his colleagues to develop a laser-based diagnostic technology that searches for amyloid protein buildup in the eyes and could aid in early detection of the disease. Goldstein’s team hopes that in the next couple of years physicians will be able to use this laser-based molecular diagnostic screening test for Alzheimer’s disease and do without the costly, two-year, multiple-visit Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis process.

Imagine the potential biomarker technology could provide the way we efficiently and accurately diagnose diseases, improve quality of clinical care, and enhance disease management for patients and caregivers. At FasterCures, we will continue to keep a close eye on developments in biomarker science and support efforts that encourage, inspire, and fuel innovation in medical research and discovery.

Melissa Stevens, Director of Special Projects, FasterCures

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