New early detection test for Alzheimer’s disease built on UBC research launches in Canada

Click to play video: 'UBC Alzheimer’s disease testing program'
UBC Alzheimer’s disease testing program
University of British Columbia researchers say they've developed a first-in-Canada testing program for Alzheimer's disease which could assist with an earlier and more accurate diagnosis. Julia Foy reports – Dec 24, 2021

Canadians across the country now have access to a new test for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, drawn from the work of researchers at UBC’s faculty of medicine.

The test detects proteins known as biomarkers, and can help doctors diagnose the neurodegenerative disease years ahead of when they could have in the past, according to lead investigator Dr. Mari DeMarco, a clinical associate professor at UBC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine.

“We can take just a drop of the fluid that surrounds the brain, cerebrospinal fluid, and in that drop of fluid we can look at those same biomarkers, and they leave a signature behind in the cerebrospinal fluid when there is changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” she explained.

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The test is the result of work that started nearly three years ago as part of the ongoing IMPACT-AD study, which is probing how offering biomarker testing in routine care could help improve healthcare and help patients and families deal with dementia.

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“We’re learning from the people who underwent testing that this is really helpful to them for planning for … reducing some of the anxiety around the diagnosis, and being able to better communicate with friends and family,” DeMarco said.

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That was the case for 69-year-old Anne Bill and her two daughters.

Bill began showing early symptoms of Alzheimer’s, primarily around short-term memory loss several years ago, but remains lucid and high functioning.

When her husband passed away from a heart attack, her daughters got in touch with UBC’s Alzheimer’s clinic to learn more, and were offered the chance to participate in the study.

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Sure enough, when she was tested for the biomarkers, the result came back positive — something her daughters said actually helped reduce their anxiety.

“I think we ultimately knew she had it, but now that we knew, knew it was a sense of peace and that we could move forward and do what we needed to do to support mom,” Jordana Dehann told Global News.

“It was like, OK, this is what it is,” Kristi Wijnsma added.

“It’s a terrible disease. We know it’s a degenerative disease; we know our mom will slowly slip away. But we can make good use of our time that we have with her and just make memories and be together as a family.”

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While the study is still ongoing, DeMarco said the test itself is now being made available to eligible people Canada-wide.

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Prospective patients can speak with their doctor about it, and have the test ordered by a specialist in dementia care.

“For some they told us they had worry about not knowing what was going on with their brain health and this test helped relieve a little bit of that worry,” DeMarco said.

“For others it was really critical for helping plan for the future, including medical care, long-term financial planning, and even social family (planning), for example going to take that trip to far-away friends and family you’ve put off for a while.”

For Bill, who has moved into an assisted-living situation closer to her daughters, the knowledge has helped her focus on making the most of her time with them.

“I want to just keep going and the grandkids and the daughters keep me active and I’m so blessed to have them close by,” she said.

“Take one day at a time, thank the Lord for every morning you wake up breathing, spend quality time with your children and grandchildren.”

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