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A landmark £6.9m study, which will see 250 volunteers undergo a series of thorough and rigorous tests, has been launched in the UK and could mark a turning point in tackling Alzheimer's disease.
The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study, funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), aims to identify biomarkers that allow Alzheimer's to be diagnosed at an early stage when there are no obvious symptoms.
Researchers hope to dramatically improve the success rate of clinical trials for treatments in Alzheimer’s disease, with the development of revolutionary drugs being used to halt progress of the disease before irreparable damage to the brain has occurred.
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “It’s fantastic to see new investment for such a coordinated and innovative study. Detecting some of the earliest biological changes in Alzheimer’s can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but this ambitious approach is taking the haystack apart strand by strand.
“We know that changes in the brain can start many years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s show and the findings from this study have the potential to map out these changes in unprecedented detail.
“Credit must be given to the volunteers who are willing to undergo such thorough assessment to help others affected by this disease in future and without whom this project wouldn’t be possible.”
Researchers will perform up to 50 tests on 250 volunteers from Dementias Platform UK cohorts over a one-year period. The tests will include wearable devices that will give researchers detailed information on people’s movement and gait, retinal imaging and brain imaging scans, blood, urine and spinal fluid samples, along with memory and thinking tests.
By studying different aspects of health and brain function in the volunteers, researchers hope to identify biological markers (biomarkers) that could be used to detect symptoms in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s and identify those who may be suitable for trials of possible treatments.
Between 2002 and 2012, 99 per cent of clinical trials failed because drugs were tested on people whose brains were already damaged.
Professor Simon Lovestone, lead researcher and Professor of Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said: “We know that Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor. Previous studies have shown changes to the brain as early as 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise.
“If we can identify the biomarkers present in this very early stage, we have the chance of treating the disease earlier, which is vital if we are to prevent damage to people’s memory and thinking. We’re indebted to those volunteers taking part in the study whose time and effort will make a real difference to our ability to diagnosis and treat this disease.”
Dr Rob Buckle, director of science programmes at the Medical Research Council (MRC), believes this first major clinical study could be ‘game-changing’ for dementia research.
“Our goal is to find treatments that can slow down or even stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “Finding biomarkers for clinical trials is crucial for fast-tracking decisions as to whether a trial should stop or continue, and the faster we can find out which drugs work and which ones don’t, the faster we can benefit patients. An ability to deliver more cost-effective clinical trials would also encourage investment and increase the number of such studies in the future.”
An estimated 46 million people worldwide were thought to be living with dementia in 2015, and with an ageing population in most developed countries, predictions suggest this number may double by 2050. Currently, there is no known cure for the disease and there are few treatments which are available to treat the symptoms.
Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Dementia can be a heart-breaking condition, but it is my mission as Health Secretary to make this country the best place in the world to get a dementia diagnosis and support, as well as being a global leader in the effort to find a cure. This extra investment is a vital step forwards towards that goal.”
The multi-site team, led by the University of Oxford, will work with colleagues at eight UK universities and the Alzheimer’s Society, with the project also receiving support from a coalition of biopharma companies.
Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health, said: “By working together, the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council are leading the way on new and potentially important treatments for dementia. This important study will hopefully encourage more people to take part in our high-quality research to help uncover more insight into causes and possible solutions for dementia.”
For more information, visit: www.nihr.ac.uk or www.mrc.ac.uk