This Fort Worth researcher is creating the first blood test for Alzheimer’s
Beverly Dittmer recently received news that put her at ease: The 76-year-old isn’t prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease.
For Dittmer, who cares for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease, this report lifted a huge burden. Now she can focus on helping her husband of 34 years instead of trying to fight a brain disorder that steals memories.
Dittmer received this peace of mind courtesy of a study underway at Fort Worth’s University of North Texas Health Science Center, where historic research aimed at fighting Alzheimer’s disease is taking place.
“I hope that tons of people will qualify for this,” said Dittmer, who wanted to participate in the research as soon as she learned that medical experts are developing a blood test to detect Alzheimer’s disease early.
Sid O’Bryant, executive director of the Institute for Translational Research at UNTHSC, is in charge of a $6.5 million study funded by the National Institute on Aging. He has an ambitious mission — he wants to develop an easy-to-use blood test that can identify the disease in people.
“This is the first-ever study, in history anywhere on the planet, to actually look at a blood test in primary care,” O’Bryant said.
As part of the project, O’Bryant needs about 500 people 65 and over to participate in clinical trials over the next three years. Between 50 and 60 patients have participated, O’Bryant said.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but early detection can help minimize the effects and improve the quality of life in later years, O’Bryant said. There isn’t a good system for primary care doctors to rapidly screen for Alzheimer’s disease so that they know who should and should not be referred, O’Bryant said.
It can also take years for a patient to see a specialist and thousands of dollars to get an accurate diagnosis.
“My primary concern was that there is still nothing actually in the primary care setting,” O’Bryant said. “It’s the primary care doctors who see everybody — they are the gatekeepers for our medical system.”
‘A vital clinical test’
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, said O’Bryant, a neuropsychologist who works with dementia patients. It is the most common with about 80 percent of dementia patients having Alzheimer’s, he said.
In 2000, O’Bryant was inspired to develop an early detection for Alzheimer’s disease because he saw the effects of dementia and wanted to do more.
He was also touched personally by the disease through his grandmother’s own battle against Alzheimer’s.
“That’s when I decided that I would try to find a blood test for primary care doctors,” O’Bryant said.
If the test becomes fully available, it would reduce time and expense — issues that are critical as the aging population increases.
The blood test being studied looks for biomarker proteins in the blood to detect Alzheimer’s disease, according to the university health center. It was shown to be 96% accurate in previous studies.
The Institute for Translational Research is looking for participants 65 and over who have a memory concern reported by the participant, family, or health care provider.
“To start off with, these would be patients who think they have something going on — this isn’t predicting risks 20 years down the road,” O’Bryant said. “This would be to tell you, Do you have Alzheimer’s or not?”
O’Bryant said it is accurate in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s disease.
The goal is to get a blood test ready for primary care doctors in about five years. The test would be included with laboratory tests ordered by doctors when a patient complains of symptoms linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
“This vital clinical test could be invaluable for patients and physicians. It’s greatest utility will be in its potential to rule out the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease, thus reassuring patients,” said said Dr. Jennifer Arnouville, a Fort Worth physician who has referred patients to the study.
Arnouville explained that a detailed cognitive evaluation is a lengthy process which often requires referral to specialists, detailed memory testing, and expensive imaging tests such as MRIs.
A blood test would offer a better use of time and resources for patients and insurers, she said.
“Additionally, having a test such as this where Alzheimer’s can be quickly ruled out allows providers to contemplate other possibilities for complaints of memory loss, potentially arriving at alternative diagnoses sooner,” Arnouville said in an email.
Participants can take part by reaching out to the Institute for Translational Research, which will move them through a process that includes a referral from a primary care doctor.
As part of the study, people get a thorough assessment for Alzheimer’s that includes memory testing, an MRI and a PET scan at no cost to them. A PET, positron emission tomography, is an image used to detect diseases. The results of this assessment are compared against the results of the blood tests for the study.
A source of worry
Alzheimer’s faces several stigmas, including people not realizing it is a real brain disease, O’Bryant said.
“We are where cancer was say, 40 years ago, where when you got diagnosed it was bleak, but I don’t think that has to be the case. I really believe that by getting earlier diagnostics and better understanding of the disease, that we can have a world where this is not so terrifying.”
The early signs of Alzheimer’s include memory losses.
“People starting to not be able to remember things that before they could,” O’Bryant said. “Maybe, someone who was always good at keeping a list of grocery items, and they could always go to the store and keep all of them in their head, now they can’t.”
Some early signs can be depression or social withdrawal, he said, stressing that the signs have to be changes that affect daily life.
“Alzheimer’s memory loss does not start in the past, it starts in the now,” O’Bryant said. “The things that go first in memory with Alzheimer’s disease are new memories and then slowly it works backwards.”
It affects the older memories when patients live with the disease for a long time, he said.
O’Bryant said ruling out Alzheimer’s can bring a sense of relief to older patients.
“Alzheimer’s is the No. 1 fear of the elderly and so being told, ‘You are fine. Stop worrying,’ is just huge for patients and reducing stress,” he said.
When patients know they are facing Alzheimer’s they can fight back with healthy habits that include exercising the mind and body, he said. They can make decisions about their lives and plan for when they can’t, he said.
“Dignity is important and I think it is important that patients can make their own choices in life. They can make their own choices about how they want things to be,” he said. “We afford that benefit to cancer patients and we never stop treating.”
Family members can get support services and activities to confront the disease.
“Sticking your head in the dirt is the worst thing you could possibly do,” O’Bryant said.
Dittmer, a former writer for the Hood County News in Granbury, said she participated in the clinical trial because she wanted to be able to fight the disease.
Before learning her assessment results, Dittmer had a plan: “I’m going to fight it with exercise and mental abilities.”
In December, Dittmer said her husband, 82-year-old Paul Herbert Dittmer, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She said there were signs that something was wrong.
“He couldn’t multi-task anymore,” she said, adding that he had run businesses and could manage two or three tasks at a time.
Dittmer said they are taking things one day at a time with the understanding that there are good days and bad ones.
“It is one of those things you learn to live with,” she said.
For more information
For further information about the study, contact the Institute for Translational Research is 817-735-2963.