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Blood test for early detection of Alzheimer’s launched to public

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A simple blood test that can detect and screen with 96% accuracy whether a person has Alzheimer’s disease up to a decade before symptoms appear, has been made available to the general public for the first time.

The blood test developed by an international research team led by scientists from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), could be a potential game changer in the battle to catch and treat the neurodegenerative disease in its early stages.

The PlasmarkAD Blood Test Service is currently only available to patients in Hong Kong at a cost of HK$7,000 (£693 or $894 US).

But Dr Joyce Ouyang, managing director of Hong Kong-based Cognitact, which has licensed the medical breakthrough, has told Agetech World that its rollout in the Chinese city-state potentially paves the way for a cheap and easy diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, that could eventually help millions of people across the globe begin early treatment for the devastating disease.

She said: “It was easier for us to launch in Hong Kong because we are based here, and because of the regulatory framework, but we do plan to extend this to other parts of the world. We need to see how it goes in Hong Kong first, but we do have plans for further commercialisation.

“We think we will seek the possibility of whether it could expand into the UK or Europe through our connections there.”

It is hoped that ultimately the blood test could open the door to novel therapeutic treatments for Alzheimer’s and perhaps be adapted to help detect other neurodegenerative diseases, as Dr Ouyang explained. “The next step is to see if the test can be used for other types of dementia, like frontal FTD (frontotemporal dementia). That would be the first priority.

Dr Joyce Ouyang, managing director of Hong Kong-based Cognitact

“Currently we are using a quite expensive method, that is why our current test is not cheap. But, of course, it is cheaper than other conventional, traditional methods. We do need to do some more research and development, however, to develop some other cheaper methods for the blood test diagnosis.

“Why it is expensive is because we are using a quite costly platform. We are measuring something from the blood to reflect what is happening in the brain, so sometimes these protein levels in the blood are quite low, so that is why we need to use an expensive method to achieve the ultra sensitive detection of those protein levels.

“The plan is to develop a cheaper method to achieve the sensitive detection of those biomarkers. We hope that this can be faster, and in this we are collaborating with other companies to focus on the biotech for the protein part to see whether we can figure out another method to achieve the ultra-sensitive detection and also more cheaply.

“We hope that this will facilitate the test to go further and quicker and cheaper.”

The PlasmarkAD test has taken around five years to develop in collaboration with scientists from University College London (UCL) and clinicians in Hong Kong hospitals, including the Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth, with the researchers using Chinese patient data to progress it.

The blood test is aimed at those who are concerned about developing Alzheimer’s. Individuals book an appointment online and do the test at designated centres.

It uses a single drop of blood to determine if a person has Alzheimer’s disease, which affects around 55 million people globally.

In Europe alone, the number of people with dementia – of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type – is expected to almost double by 2050, increasing to more than 14 million in the EU and nearly 19 million in the wider region.

Early detection of the progressive disease which damages the brain and often begins with mild memory loss, is key to slowing its effects.

There is currently no cure with an average life span for patients of 10 years post-diagnosis.

Given the devastating effects of the disease and how common it is becoming, the need for more diagnostic tools that can pick up on its presence early and hopefully help slow cognitive decline, has become a scientific cause célèbre.

Currently, Alzheimer’s is typically diagnosed via neuroimaging and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid collected via a lumbar puncture.

But a lumbar puncture can be invasive and painful and brain scans expensive with potentially long waits to both get an appointment and the results.

A blood test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease with 96% accuracy has become available to the public in Hong Kong.

The HKUST blood test leverages world-leading proteomic technology (the systematic analysis of proteins) and self-developed machine learning algorithms. Using this method, PlasmarkAD can detect the level changes of blood biomarkers simply through regular blood draws, and accurately evaluate the instant probability of a person developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Ouyang received her bachelor’s degree at Nanjing University and her PhD from HKUST after which she continued her neuroscience research in Hong Kong for neurodegenerative diseases. Her own research focuses on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis and has identified multiple therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative disease.

She joined Cognitact with a vision of translating the biomarker research into real applications that can be used by the public.

Dr Ouyang said the team at HKUST has identified 19 out of the 429 plasma proteins associated with Alzheimer’s to form the biomarker panel representative of an “AD signature” in the blood.

She explained that based on this panel, the team has developed a scoring system that distinguishes Alzheimer’s patients from healthy people with more than  96% accuracy. This system can also differentiate early, intermediate and late stages of Alzheimer’s and be used to monitor the progression of the disease.

Most notably, this blood test can detect the presence of Alzheimer’s disease five to 10 years before symptoms appear.

Moreover, through multi-dimensional analysis of the human body systems based on the detected protein levels, Dr Ouyang said it can evaluate the status of those areas that may be affected in Alzheimer’s disease, including immune, metabolic, nervous and vascular processes, potentially providing more personalised analysis and treatments.

Dr Ouyang said early detection of Alzheimer’s is critical given that treating it remains a challenge. Patients are only diagnosed when symptoms, such as memory loss, appear. But the actual onset of the disease can be many years earlier.

“The blood test, as you know, the accuracy to detect AD indications is 96% and we can also achieve early screening and early detection of this group of people. The current clinical diagnosis is really too late, when the patient develops the symptoms. The early detection of the disease will help them to save some time. You will have the early intervention of the disease and hope that it will facilitate a cure.

This microfluidic chip will be used to perform protein biomarker measurement, which allows high-throughput sampling and ultrasensitive detection.

“It can assist the longitudinal monitoring of the disease as well. It means that if a patient has already developed AD, our blood test solution can help to evaluate the disease status and also as a way to evaluate if the treatment is having some effect on the disease, delaying the disease, or inhibiting the disease progression as well.

“So we think that our blood test solution is really helpful in the early detection, and also supports and facilitates the early disease management for patients.”

The research facility that has developed the blood test was set up by HKUST in 2020. It received HK$500m worth of government funding. Aside from the blood test, Dr Ouyang said the team is also looking at developing new genome-editing technology treatments for Alzheimer’s.

The work is helping push Hong Kong to the forefront of neurodegenerative disease research.

Current Alzheimer’s disease treatment relies on six existing drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. But Dr Ouyang said they have their limitations.

“There are six drugs launched at the US FDA market for AD cure and five of them actually for the symptomatic relief only, such as the psychiatric symptoms or to reduce stress. They are not curing the disease.

“The last one is a monochloride antibody targeted AD drug launched onto the market in 2021, but because the side effects were quite severe it was withdrawn and then the same company launched another product with an enhanced efficacy.

“Of course, we hope that it can really help to treat AD, but the thinking within the team is that the disease may be diagnosed very late because when the patient really encounters the memory problem, actually the disease is already severe.

“These pathological changes in the brain are irreversible, so that is why the cure for AD does not have that much good efficacy.

“So, we hope this blood test will not only support early detection, but that through this early detection we can identify these group of people and give them early treatment so this can help them suffer less and give them a better quality of life.”

Dr Ouyang said she is confident the HKUST team will continue to play a leading role in advancing research into Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative diseases, “to move on the development of precision diagnosis and medicine that will benefit people across the world.”

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On a mission to show that hearing loss is not inevitable

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The world’s largest investigation into the effectiveness of hearing training kicks off this week – as part of a movement to prove that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The research project aims to attract a minimum of 10,000 participants to better understand how hearing training impacts auditory processing skills like speech comprehension and the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.

Researchers are interested in the impact of hearing training on users who start training with different hearing ability levels, as well as training adherence in groups with different attitudes to smartphone technology.

Their aim is to find new ways to deliver and improve auditory training at scale and for a wider range of hearing skills; and to measure factors which influence training engagement.

The research is led by health tech firm Eargym. Co-founder Andy Shanks says:  Contrary to popular belief, hearing loss is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. We can take steps to improve and protect our hearing throughout our lives, yet preventative measures like hearing training have traditionally been under-researched.

“Our data shows the transformative impact hearing training can have on our ability to process sounds. Now, we want to deepen and widen our research and use our platform to make hearing training even more effective and accessible. Imagine improving and maintaining your hearing by up to 20% or more: it could make a big difference to the lives of so many people.”

The games on the Eargym app include a “busy barista” exercise, where users must discern speech over a cafe’s bustling background noise; and a “sound seeking” exercise, where users make their way through forests, jungles and oceans to locate the sources of different sounds. Each game is designed to be immersive and to help users practise specific auditory processing skills regularly.

Eargym was set up by former NHS CEO Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks in 2020, after they were both diagnosed with hearing loss. Amanda has moderate age related hearing loss, whilst Andy has “notch” or noise-induced hearing loss due to DJ-ing. Both found hearing loss isolating and it impacted their ability to socialise and communicate. They created eargym to empower others to better understand their hearing health and take proactive steps to protect it.

Hearing loss currently affects 18 million adults in the UK, with around one billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased use of headphones. Hearing loss is closely associated with increased dementia risk. Despite this, people wait an average ten years before seeking help for hearing loss.

Eargym plans to publish the findings of its research in early 2025.

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Interview: Exploring electrical stimulation for Parkinson’s disease

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The STEPS II study is investigating functional electrical stimulation (FES) in people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their walking. Dr Paul Taylor, co-founder and Clinical Director of Odstock Medical Ltd (OML), spoke to Agetech World to tell us more.

Bradykinesia – slowness of movement which can lead to difficulty walking – affects many people living with Parkinson’s disease. The symptom can cause Parkinson’s patients to walk or move slowly, increasing the risk of falls, leading to a reduced quality of life and an increased dependence on others. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, sponsored by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, and managed by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit, the STEPS II study is exploring the use of an FES device in Parkinson’s patients to help improve bradykinesia. 

The FES device, which has been pioneered by Salisbury researchers as a drop foot treatment for stroke and MS patients, is attached to the patient’s leg and produces small electrical impulses that improve movement.

“If you have Bradykinesia you’re moving slowly. The predominant treatment for Parkinson’s is medication and these can be very effective, but they have the problem of not working all the time,” explains Taylor, co-founder of Odstock Medical Ltd, a company owned by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

”The effects of the drugs will wear off and after a period of time they become less effective, so, there’s a need for improvement.”

Taylor explains that deep brain stimulators are currently available, however, they are very invasive, expensive and can be risky. 

“We’re trying to do something which is a bit simpler and cheaper, which may possibly be able to help people at an earlier stage of Parkinson’s,” Taylor says.

“We’re stimulating the common peroneal nerve, which is the nerve that goes down the leg to the muscles, using a device called a drop foot stimulator. The device is commonly used for stroke and multiple sclerosis.”

A small feasibility study has already been conducted, which showed that FES can help patients walk faster and reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s. 

In the STEPS II study, researchers hope to confirm the long-term effects of FES on walking speed and daily life with 234 participants at sites across Salisbury, Birmingham, Prestwick, Leeds, Swansea and Carlisle.

Taylor continues: “Our original idea was that we could use electrical stimulation to overcome freezing – which is the effect where people with Parkinson’s will stop walking, particularly when they come to doorways or very narrow areas. It’s to do with the processing of information from the outside world. 

“We wanted to see if we could use electrical stimulation to overcome that freezing and, to a certain extent, we did find that is the case for some patients, but more commonly and with a greater number of patients FES affected bradykinesia – speeding up their movement and helping with more effective walking.”

For the STEPS II study, participants will be randomised into a care as normal group, or a care as normal plus FES group. They will use the stimulator if they are in the FES group for 18 weeks, then the stimulator is taken away, with patients followed up one month later to see if the effects are continued.

Measurements of walking speed and movement will be analysed, along with sensory perception, balance, coordination, muscle strength, as well as secondary effects such as how the device impacts daily living and quality of life.

OML has established clinics around the country with trained therapists where the device will be used if the study is successful. 

“There’s a network of clinics already experienced in using the treatment so we plan to reach those clinics to include Parkinson’s patients in their cohorts,” says Taylor. “Then we’ll work with our contacts to see if we can get it overseas as well.”

OML is currently recruiting participants for the study, to find out more please visit: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/penctu/steps-2 

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Quit Googling to stave off dementia onset, expert urges

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Resisting the temptation to search the web for information that could otherwise be recalled be exercising your brain could help to reduce the risk of dementia.

That is according to Canadian academic Professor Mohamed I. Elmasry who believes simple daily habits such as afternoon naps, memory ‘workouts’ and not reaching for a smartphone can increase the odds of healthy aging.

His new book, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence, says the focus has shifted too far away from RI (natural, or real) intelligence in favour of AI (machine, or artificial) intelligence. Elmasry instead calls us to nurture our human mind which, like smartphones, has ‘hardware’, ‘software’ and ‘apps’ but is many times more powerful – and will last much longer with the right care.

Professor Elmasry, an internationally recognised expert in microchip design and AI, was inspired to write the book after the death of his brother-in-law from Alzheimer’s and others very close to him, including his mother, from other forms of dementia.

Although he says that smart devices are ‘getting smarter all the time’, he argues in iMind that none comes close to ‘duplicating the capacity, storage, longevity, energy efficiency, or self-healing capabilities of the original human brain-mind’.

He writes that: “The useful life expectancy for current smartphones is around 10 years, while a healthy brain-mind inside a healthy human body can live for 100 years or longer.

“Your brain-mind is the highest-value asset you have, or will ever have. Increase its potential and longevity by caring for it early in life, keeping it and your body healthy so it can continue to develop.

“Humans can intentionally develop and test their memories by playing ‘brain games,’ or performing daily brain exercises. You can’t exercise your smartphone’s memory to make it last longer or encourage it to perform at a higher level.”

In iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence Professor Elmasry shares an anecdote about his grandchildren having to use the search engine on their smartphones to name Cuba’s capital—they had just spent a week in the country with their parents.

The story illustrates how young people have come to rely on AI smartphone apps instead of using their real intelligence (RI), he says, adding: “A healthy memory goes hand-in-hand with real intelligence. Our memory simply can’t reach its full potential without RI.”

Published by Routledge, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence includes extensive background on the history of microchip design, machine learning and AI and their role in smartphones and other technology.

The book also explains how both AI and human intelligence really work, and how brain function links the mind and memory. It compares the human mind and brain function with that of smartphones, ChatGPT and other AI-based systems.

Drawing on comprehensive existing research, iMind aims to narrow the knowledge gap between real and artificial intelligence, to address the current controversy around AI, and to inspire researchers to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

It argues that current or even planned AI cannot match the capabilities of the human brain-mind for speed, accuracy, storage capacity and other functions. Healthy aging, Professor Elmasry notes, is as important as climate change but doesn’t attract a fraction of the publicity.

He calls for policymakers to adopt a series of key reforms to promote healthy aging. Among such changes, he suggests that bingo halls could transition from their sedentary entertainment function to become active and stimulating learning centers.

As well as napping to refresh our memories and other brain and body functions, he also outlines a series of practical tips to boost brain power and enhance our RI (Real Intelligence).

These include building up ‘associative’ memory – the brain’s ‘dictionary of meaning’ where it attaches new information to what it already knows. Try reading a book aloud, using all of your senses instead of going on autopilot and turning daily encounters into fully-lived experiences.

Other techniques include integrating a day for true rest into the week, reviewing your lifestyle as early as your 20s or 30s, adopting a healthy diet, and eliminating or radically moderating alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dementia.

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