St. Paul’s investigating a new approach to Alzheimer’s disease diagnostics

January 26th, 2016

Equipment purchased with donations will contribute to future developments

When Dr. Mari DeMarco explained to her grandmother she was researching a way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, her reaction was, “Why don’t you try and find a cure instead?” It’s a comment the clinical chemist has heard many times before, but she is a firm believer that effective treatments can only come after there is an efficient and accurate way to properly diagnose Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“In a recent big clinical drug trial, 20% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s turned out not to have the disease. Without a good diagnostic tool, the development of drugs is hindered because the drugs targeted for one form of dementia may not be as effective on others,” explains Dr. DeMarco. Currently there is no simple way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Most of it is based upon symptoms and requires careful medical evaluation.

Grace van der Gugten, assay development specialist at St Paul’s, and Dr. DeMarco have spent the last two years developing a new method of measuring biomarkers that have long been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Until now, the methods to test for them haven’t been up to medical standards, and also cost-prohibitive. The new technique at St Paul’s Hospital uses liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyze samples of cerebrospinal fluid to identify changes in Alzheimer’s disease -related biomarkers. It is striking that these biomarkers can change 15 to 20 years before symptoms even appear.

Initial results are very promising and this could prove to be a game changer for those facing the uncertainty of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The next step is a larger scale study out of the lab starting later this year. Dr. DeMarco will work with the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders and the Alzheimer Society of BC to recruit 200 patients. She wants to find out how effective the test is in a clinical setting, including answers to these questions: does it help patients through their journey with dementia diagnosis; does it offer clinicians an opportunity to offer more effective treatments; and does it impact costs for the health care system?

“From a patient’s perspective, early detection allows them to connect with the community resources available and plan for the future, including making choices about their long-term care. In the future, we hope this will also enable access to the right therapy at the earliest possible point in the disease course,” says Dr. DeMarco. And her grandmother couldn’t be more proud.

Donations to fuel future studies

Equipment purchased through the Enhanced Patient Care Fund, a St. Paul’s Foundation grant program that is funded by donations from the community, will be used for cataloging, tracking and ensuring the quality of cerebrospinal fluid specimens used in this research.

Support the Enhanced Patient Care Fund and other programs at St. Paul’s.

This work was supported by the Providence Health Care Research Institute, the St Paul’s Foundation Enhanced Patient Care Fund, and is being undertaken in close collaboration with the Clinic for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders at the University of British Columbia.