Northwestern researchers develop noninvasive method for early detection of Alzheimer’s

Rachel Yang, Reporter

A team of Northwestern researchers has developed the first noninvasive method of detecting Alzheimer’s disease in a living animal. This approach can detect the disease before early symptoms appear using an MRI probe.

“Right now there is no (early, noninvasive) way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease precisely and accurately,” said William Klein, a Weinberg professor of neurobiology who led the research team along with Vinayak Dravid, a McCormick professor of materials science and engineering.

Klein said even though methods like spinal taps, in which the spinal fluid of the patient is drawn out, can diagnose Alzheimer’s, “nobody really wants to go in for their bi-annual spinal tap.”

The MRI approach is preferable because it is noninvasive and has no radiation, Dravid said.

In 1998, Klein and another team of researchers were the first to discover the toxin they believe causes Alzheimer’s disease. His and Dravid’s team developed an MRI probe that uses a combination of a magnetic nanostructure (MNS) and an antibody to attach to the toxin.

This development, published in the December 2014 edition of the journal “Nature Nanotechnology,” is potentially groundbreaking for numerous reasons, Dravid and Klein said.

“If indeed (the toxin) turns out to be the culprit, then this is one of the biggest things that has happened to Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” Dravid said.

In addition, the development is revolutionary for the study of other diseases like Parkinson’s disease, where specific proteins in the brain also accumulate to become toxins.

Dravid, who was responsible for developing the MNS and looking at the MRI, said this development is also promising for future collaboration between scientists of different backgrounds.

One of the reasons researchers from various disciplines were able to come together was thanks to NU’s resources, Dravid said.

“Northwestern is truly the vanguard of this concept of working at the interface of nanoscience,” Dravid said.

Kirsten Viola, a research lab manager who was involved with the project, cited many NU resources as being integral to the project’s success, including a state-of-the-art Tesla MRI scanner and the Atomic Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center, where Dravid is the director.

For now, the researchers’ goal is to develop more extensively an antibody that can be used for diagnostics and therapeutics on human patients, as their experiments thus far were conducted on mice and brain tissues of deceased Alzheimer’s patients. Klein said his team has been developing for eight years a humanized antibody that can target, neutralize and remove the toxins from patients with Alzheimer’s disease. With the right funding and research, Klein said he hopes to get the approach to the clinic or in trials within two years.

Klein said he knows this is not far from the future.

“It’s not like you can go to Walgreens and say, ‘Give me a test for Alzheimer’s,’” Klein said. “But the idea is, 10 years from now, when your parents might want to go take the test like that, it should be available.”

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated for clarity.