New Alzheimer’s test earns TAF investment
When a patient suffers from dementia, it’s not always clear if the cause is Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another condition, requiring different treatment. Igor Lednev, professor of chemistry at the University at Albany, has developed a new, non-invasive method for diagnosing AD, and he hopes it will prove more practical and effective than other tests available today.
“It will be a very inexpensive, routine, simple test that patients can do as often as they want to learn whether they have this disease in its early stages,” Lednev says.
The SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) has awarded Lednev a $50,000 investment to help turn his invention, based on Raman spectroscopy, into a commercial product.
Today, when a patient shows symptoms such as memory loss and confusion, a doctor might use MRI or another imaging technology to look for the amyloid plaques in the brain that signify AD. Unfortunately, that method is complicated and costly. For certain patients, a doctor might look for biomarkers in cerebral spinal fluid, but that is a highly invasive procedure.
Often, a physician will ask a patient a series of questions and analyze the answers to determine whether the symptoms spring from AD or another disease that causes dementia. “The accuracy for this can be as high as 90 percent, but only in the late stages of the disease,” Lednev says. The other methods, too, are effective only when AD has progressed past the early stages, he says.
Although there is no cure for AD, some medications can slow its progress. The sooner a doctor makes a diagnosis, the sooner treatment can begin. But physicians must be certain they are targeting the right disease.
Lednev’s test uses a Raman spectrometer to shine a laser on a drop of a patient’s blood. As the beam hits molecules in the blood, the light particles—called photons—scatter. Some of the scattered photons change their energy due to the excitation of molecular vibrations.
“If you characterize the energy change for the scattered photons, you get a vibrational signature for each molecule in the sample,” Lednev says. Taken together, those signatures identify the total chemical composition of the blood.
Ultimately, Lednev expects to discover a pattern of chemical changes in blood that signals the presence of AD. Once his research defines those biochemical markers, it should be possible to diagnose AD even in the early stages, when a patient is not yet showing symptoms of dementia.
Lednev’s work on AD evolved from two other projects in his lab over the past decade. In one of them, he and his graduate students study the chemical properties of amyloid fibrils, proteins found in patients who have AD or Type 2 diabetes. In the second project, which resulted in a patent, Lednev’s lab has developed a way to apply Raman spectroscopy to forensics, using it to analyze traces of body fluids found at a crime scene.
About five years ago, Lednev met Earl Zimmerman, MD, professor of neurology at the Albany Medical College and director of the Alzheimer's disease Center at Albany Medical Center. “He said we should try this for diagnostics,” Lednev says. Zimmerman provided blood samples from some of his AD patients, and the two launched a collaboration that led to the new diagnostic test.
Lednev will use the TAF investment to further develop his technique, showing that it works not only in the lab, but also in a clinical setting such as a hospital. “First, we will optimize sample preparation and acquisition,” he says. “We will also optimize the statistical analysis, and we will compare our test with the one that uses cerebral spinal fluid.” Finally, his lab will try the technique on samples collected from hospitals other than Albany Medical Center.
Once he has completed those steps, Lednev hopes to attract the substantial funding he would need for large-scale clinical trials. If successful, the trials would firmly establish that the new test is ready to enter the marketplace.
While the invention might follow several possible routes to market, the best option at the outset could be to establish an AD testing service at Albany Medical Center, Lednev says.
Lednev is still some years away from showing that he can use Raman spectroscopy to detect AD in its earliest stages. But since the test needs only a single drop of blood—not a lumbar puncture, advanced imaging technology or a verbal test administered by a doctor trained in the procedure—for the short term it offers an attractive alternative to existing diagnostic tools, he says. “If we can provide an automatic, reliable biochemical test now, even for advanced stages of the disease, that will already be a big step forward.”
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