If you were starting to show signs of dementia you’d likely want a doctor to be able to give you a concrete diagnosis and treatment. However, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are almost impossible for doctors to diagnose with certainty until after a patient dies and an autopsy can be performed.
Brain Chemistry Labs, a nonprofit research institute in Jackson, is trying to change that. The lab, which researches the identification and treatment of such diseases, has made a discovery its scientists believe could lead to new treatments.
“What the scientific community is lacking is biomarkers,” researcher Dr. Sandra Banack said. “These biomarkers are really the holy grail.”
Biomarkers are physiological characteristics that doctors or scientists can use to follow a disease’s progression, like white blood cell counts for HIV. The researchers have developed a method to measure microRNA, small genetic particles, in blood samples.
Exosomes, which are structures that cells send between themselves to communicate, carry the genetic particles from the brain to other parts of the body. By capturing the exosomes, the researchers are able to determine how genes are expressed in the body, meaning which ones are activated. That could offer clues into how neurodegenerative diseases progress.
“We want to say which genes are turned on and off with Alzheimer’s or ALS,” Banack said, “and which are unique to those diseases.”
The researchers found 101 gene expressions that are different between patients with ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and a control group of people who did not have the disease. After they narrow that list to ones unique to neurodegeneration, they could begin tracking treatments and medicines.
“This could allow us to rapidly determine if a drug is working in a particular patient,” Senior Research Fellow Rachael Dunlop said in a press release.
Brain Chemistry Labs also participated in a Phase 1 clinical study with partners from Dartmouth University that determined it is safe to administer up to 30 grams per day of the amino acid L-serine to ALS patients.
Now the treatment is in a pair of U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved studies to gauge its effectiveness in slowing functional decline in patients with neurodegenerative disease. Though the initial study was not meant to determine efficacy, researchers found the results promising.
“What we saw in that trial was 85% reduction in progression of ALS,” Banack said.
The second phase of the study includes 50 patients, more than double the 20 who participated in the initial part. Researchers like Banack hope these discoveries will accelerate the pace of research into neurodegenerative diseases and their cures. Banack said that as a nonprofit Brain Chemistry Labs is situated to be nimble in its research.
“If you aren’t worried about making money you can switch paths if something isn’t promising,” she said. “We can just follow the science; therefore we’re able to do it faster and cheaper.”