- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Scientists have designed a “painless” skin test that they say is the first screening tool to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in the first one to two years of its progression.

Researchers at the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute reported their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research center, which is affiliated with West Virginia University, has offices in Morgantown, W.Va., and Rockville.

The researchers say their test provides a quick and accurate yes-or-no answer in medical assessments of patients who doctors suspect show early signs of the disease, such as dementia. They say the test also can differentiate between Alzheimer’s and all other forms of dementia.

The test can be performed easily by a nurse or medical technician in a doctor’s office or an outpatient clinic, the researchers said.

“When it begins, Alzheimer’s disease is often difficult to distinguish from other dementias or from mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Daniel Alkon, the institute’s scientific director. For example, an elderly patient might repeat a question or forget where he or she put the keys in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“Potential treatments of Alzheimer’s, however, are likely to have their greatest efficacy before the devastating and widespread impairment of brain function that inevitably develops after four or more years,” Dr. Alkon said.

He and co-author Tapan K. Khan, an assistant professor at the institute, say that as improved treatments become available, physicians who definitively know earlier that a patient has Alzheimer’s can treat the person sooner and decelerate the advance of the brain-killing disease.

For more than a century, Alzheimer’s has been characterized by so-called “tangles” and “plaques” in patients’ brains. These are large clumps of protein that destroy brain cells and interrupt memory and cognitive thought.

In recent years, many scientists have concluded that Alzheimer’s effects are found throughout the body, not just the brain. Some have focused on Alzheimer’s-related inflammation in skin cells called fibroblasts.

By testing for signs of such inflammation in skin cells, the institute’s researchers discovered biomarkers for Alzheimer’s that can be detected without lumbar taps or other invasive screening.

The researchers reported a high percentage of accuracy with such diagnoses.

Dr. Alkon said he hopes the test can be available in a year or two, but added that he wants to do a large trial involving thousands of patients, which will entail coordination with hospitals and drug companies.

“Of course, we will do this under [Food and Drug Administration] auspices,” but it should be a much shorter process than for drug approval, he said.

Dr. Alkon said clinical trials also will begin soon on a potential Alzheimer’s drug that is being used in cancer patients. He said the drug, Bryostatin, holds promise as an effective treatment both for memory loss and the “underlying neurodegenerative” conditions of Alzheimer’s, based on tests he has performed.

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