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News in Context: Progress of “Long Sought Blood Test for Alzheimer’s”

Today, The New York Times reported that a blood test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease could be only a few years away.

Researchers from Lund University in Sweden measured a form of the protein tau — which clumps together in Alzheimer’s — in blood plasma. Their test identified the disease in people with dementia as well as available brain scans and spinal fluid tests and offers a cheaper, faster and more accessible option.

“This test really opens up the possibility of being able to use a blood test in the clinic to diagnose someone more definitely with Alzheimer’s,” said Maria Carrillo, PhD, in The New York Times, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Amazing, isn’t it? I mean, really, five years ago, I would have told you it was science fiction.”

The scientists also reported that tau levels were higher in people with a gene mutation (PSEN1) linked to Alzheimer’s even up to 20 years before memory and thinking problems were expected. Their data was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference and published in JAMA Network Open.

Michael J. Fox Foundation Vice President of Research Programs Jamie Eberling, PhD, said, “This is very encouraging especially since it could potentially identify people 15 to 20 years before disease onset. To have a plasma marker is an easy and cheaper way of diagnosing the disease.”

Biological markers of disease improve care by offering a diagnosis — often hard to determine in a sea of brain diseases with similar symptoms — and speed studies by screening volunteers more quickly. But a biomarker for Parkinson’s disease does not yet exist and remains a critical need to advance research. This has been a leading priority for our Foundation since our earliest days and is the focus of millions of dollars in research investment.

Dr. Eberling points out that, in Alzheimer’s, the existing brain scans and spinal fluid tests for tau allowed scientists to compare results from the blood test. MJFF is supporting parallel studies to measure Parkinson’s using imaging and fluid-based tests to uncover multiple ways to identify and predict disease.

Much of this work is happening in our Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), which is currently considering adding a blood plasma test for tau like the one used by Lund University scientists. Read more about PPMI.

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