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Blood tests for diagnosing dementia a step closer for UK

Published: 04 April 2024

Researchers will carry out countrywide trials to identify accurate and quick blood tests that can revolutionise dementia diagnosis. The NIHR is contributing almost £1m to the new research effort.

The new research will capitalise on recent breakthroughs in potential dementia blood tests. It will generate the evidence needed for blood tests to be validated for use in the NHS within the next five years.

Researchers are based at University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford. The two research teams form the Blood Biomarker Challenge. The Challenge is a research project which has received millions of pounds and support from:

  • Alzheimer’s Society
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK
  • NIHR
  • Gates Ventures
  • People’s Postcode Lottery

Both teams will recruit participants from sites across the country. This will ensure their findings are applicable to the whole of the UK’s diverse population.

Timely and accurate diagnosis of the diseases that cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is crucial. It means people can access vital care and support and take part in medical research. This will be even more urgent if new treatments are approved for use in the NHS. These new treatments often work best for people in the earliest stage of their disease.

Currently, people are usually diagnosed using memory tests and brain scans. These are less accurate than ‘gold standard’ tests like PET scans or lumbar punctures, which also confirm what type of dementia someone has. However, only 2% of people can access these specialist tests.

In recent years, a variety of new blood tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia have shown very promising results in research settings. But they have yet to be tested widely in clinical settings in the UK.

Existing and new blood tests

The READ-OUT team will be led by:

  • Dr Vanessa Raymont, University of Oxford
  • Professor James Rowe, University of Cambridge
  • Dr Ivan Koychev, University of Oxford

They are part of Dementias Platform UK based at the University of Oxford.

They will test multiple existing and new blood tests, looking at different types of dementia. This will include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Researchers will also look at whether the blood tests can help detect these diseases at various stages.

Promising biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease

The ADAPT team will be led by:

  • Professor Jonathan Schott, UCL
  • Dr Ashvini Keshavan, UCL

They will focus on the most promising biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease, called p-tau217. This reflects levels of two hallmark proteins found inside the brain in Alzheimer’s disease – amyloid and tau.

Researchers will carry out a clinical trial to see whether measuring p-tau217 in the blood increases the rate of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease. The rate will be analysed both in people with early dementia, but also in those with mild, progressive problems with memory.

This research team will be supported by the NIHR UCLH Biomedical Research Centre.

These complementary research approaches will maximise the chances of providing the evidence needed to prove that blood tests are ready for use in the NHS. They will pave the way for them to be made available to all who might benefit within the next five years.

Professor Jonathan Schott, Alzheimer’s Research UK Chief Medical Officer and Professor of Neurology, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, said: “An early, accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is already important, allowing people to access to appropriate care and medications. If, as we hope, new treatments that can slow down Alzheimer’s disease become available soon, then this will be vital. This would pave the way for fair and equitable access to new and potentially life-changing treatments to all who might benefit.”

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer, yet a third of people living with dementia don’t have a diagnosis, which means they’re not able to access care and support. An early and accurate diagnosis is also going to be vital in the future for identifying people who are most likely to benefit from new treatments, which are now within reach."

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