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Imaging Agent in Development Aims to Diagnose Patients a Decade Earlier



Alex Gibson, the Senior Alliance Manager in a new GE Healthcare collaborative project, to identify tau protein tangles found in Alzheimer patients' brains

Alzheimer’s is one of the most widespread, damaging diseases in existence today. Worldwide, approximately 35.6 million people live with dementia, according to data from Alzheimer’s Disease International. The World Health Organization (WHO) expects these figures to double by 2030 (65.7 million) and more than triple by 2050 (115.4 million).

The absence of an early diagnosis is a major hindrance when trying to manage the disease. Even in high-income countries, patients are often diagnosed with AD when they are already in the late stages of the disease and are beginning to lose their independence.

These are worrying facts about a major neurodegenerative disease that affects one of the most important parts of our bodies: our minds. The race to find a cure or at least hope for a cure is something that has been going on for some time.

Experts believe that AD is caused by an accumulation of misfolded proteins in the brain that result in deposits known as plaques and tangles. Plaques are generally formed from beta amyloid proteins and tangles from tau proteins. The number and spread of these deposits are significantly higher in Alzheimer patients’ brains and are present before clinical symptoms such as short term memory loss become apparent.

Although recent advances have been made in imaging beta amyloid, there has been little advancement in imaging tau, a protein responsible for transporting chemicals within the brain. However, GE Healthcare has now established a new research and development project on this disease focused on tau detection.

This new research collaboration project that will be developed in conjunction with Clino Ltd., a venture by Tohoku University, plans to identify tau tangles found in Alzheimer patients’ brains. The study will be led by Professor Yukitsuka Kudo, who works in the University where tau proteins were first successfully detected in cerebrospinal fluid (a substance inside the body that acts as a cushion, protecting the brain and spine from injury). He argues that these proteins are markers to predict the future onset of the disease.

If this project is able to develop an agent that can identify the protein build-up in their early stages, doctors will be able to pinpoint the patients at most risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease. “Patient management may be improved with the hope that those at risk can be identified 10-15 years earlier,” says Alex Gibson, the Senior Alliance Manager for this new GE Healthcare investigative project. This would be a significant advance in early detection of Alzheimer’s disease: “Novel therapies, when they come, are most likely to be more effective if you capture the disease early in its onset,” he added. “There are lots of tools and technologies that GE Healthcare is developing to improve the overall management of Alzheimer’s patients; these tools may contribute to providing the best possible care to patients.” He emphasized that this would be one of the key elements that, when used alongside other available methods, may aid identification of the disease in its early stages and lead to an earlier intervention and therefore a better long term outcome for Alzheimer’s patients.

GE Healthcare already has a PET agent in development that targets beta amyloid, the other protein that may assist physicians in better assessing patients for AD. In addition to the development of imaging pharmaceuticals, GE Healthcare currently manufactures diagnostic imaging devices such as PET and MR scanners in support of the detection of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.