The £5 million project – the Blood Biomarker Challenge – has been launched to devise simple blood tests that could speed up the diagnosis of Alzheimer's and provide timely treatment.
The Alzheimer's Society, Alzheimer's Research UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Research are working with the UK Dementia Research Institute at University College London for the project.
Dementia affects around 900,000 people in the UK and experts predict that it will rise to 1.4 million people by 2040.
Currently, there is no single test for Alzheimer's, and patients can wait years for a diagnosis.
‘The UK is sitting on the cusp of a new era of dementia treatments,’ said Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research and partnerships at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
The NHS ‘doesn’t possess the required levels of diagnostic infrastructure to cope with this growing demand. We need better, more scalable tests that are also accurate, and compare to current gold-standard methods,’ she said.
Some tests are in development in private clinics in Hong Kong and the USA. They look for traces of protein, such as amyloid, that start to build up in the brain a decade or more before people develop memory loss and confusion.
Most amyloid-lowering drugs might be more effective earlier on, in people who have amyloid build-up but do not have symptoms yet, which is why a blood test could be useful.
There is no suggestion yet that the tests could be used for mass population testing. UK regulators would still need to approve the blood test, and research would need to show it is cost-effective for the NHS to use.
Nonetheless, researchers believe blood tests will be a critical move to address Alzheimer's.
‘New drugs targeting early-stage Alzheimer’s disease are just around the corner, but without a diagnosis, people simply won’t be able to access them if they are approved,’ said Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at the Alzheimer’s Society.
Introducing a blood test for dementia into UK healthcare systems would be ‘a truly game-changing win in the fight against this devastating disease,’ she said.