Learn more about Alzheimer’s blood test from Lilly

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indianapolis pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Company is making national headlines for its role in developing a blood test to detect Alzheimer’s disease. The test could possibly let patients know if the disease is in their future up to 20 years in advance. 

News 8 spoke with Dr. Mark Mintun, Vice President of Neurodegeneration Research and Clinical Development at Lilly. Mintun explained how the Alzheimer’s detection blood test works, the importance of early intervention and plans to refine the test so that it can be used in clinical practice. 

Here is the complete interview:

Gillis: So, we have this new blood test Eli Lilly developed. It’s received national attention and it’s been studied independently. Tell me a little bit about this new method to detect Alzheimer’s?

Mintun: It’s a really interesting scientific development because what we’re trying to do is develop a test for two reasons. One is to be able to find patients for Alzheimer’s research trials faster and easier so that we can accelerate our search for a cure. At the same time we hope a test like this will be able to help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier and easier and faster. 

The test actually involves detecting a small amount of protein in the blood. But what makes it unique is that the protein, by its very nature, comes from a protein that is made in the brain and builds up in Alzheimer’s disease. So, that protein might well be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but it is certainly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. And when that protein builds up it is phosphorylated, which means that a phosphorus is added to it and when that particular combination is detected in the blood after leaking a little bit out of the brain. When this happened we hoped that it could be used to predict that the patient had Alzheimer’s disease pathology in the brain. And this study that was released yesterday is a milestone study because it gives us real data. Real hope and excitement that this test is working and could actually be developed into a clinical test in the future. 

Gillis: The data out of Sweden is startling. The data indicated the test could possibly detect Alzheimer’s 20 years prior to symptoms. And out of the University of California it showed a 96% accuracy. What do you think of those numbers?

Mintun: That is the result of developing a test that has incredible sensitivity for a piece of protein that is very unique in a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That combination together means that we believe this test will be able to detect changes in the brain actually years before. 

Now, we have a lot of work to do to prove that and refine the test so that we can find out exactly what we can say. But that ability of detecting the very specific deposits in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms. We hope to be able to use that so patients can get diagnosed earlier, but to also help companies like Lilly in their search for testing cures and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Gillis: And we know Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. It is chronic. Patients will decline. It affects the brain, but also movement. So, how important is early detection?

Mintun: We believe there are a lot of reasons for early detection. Ultimately, most diseases — and we don’t believe Alzheimer’s is any different — when you develop therapies treating early is almost always better than treating late. Lots of people understand that. 

But I want to point out most Alzheimer’s disease patients are often diagnosed not just not early, but actually very late. Sometimes dying with still no diagnosis and so we see patients and we understand that many patients out there that would benefit from finding out why they are going downhill so that the patients, the families and physicians all can sort of be better at planning and getting treatments approved for Alzheimer’s disease. Now, they don’t stop the progression, but it’s very important for patients to be treated appropriately. What’s also really important is that sometimes the test can come back negative. Someone might be very worried they have Alzheimer’s disease because they might find changes that indicate Alzheimer’s disease, but then they find out they don’t, which means they should be looking for other causes. Causes that we might also be able to help. 

So, I believe that we test commonly instead of very late and that we test easily and we want patients to have access to this. We hope this is going to be a big step towards getting doctors the tools to diagnose a patient in all different stages of disease. 

Gillis: So, pointing them in the right direction and making sure they get the right treatment if the test comes back negative?

Mintun: Yes, I think that’s very important. I think people underestimate…because one of the things that happened when we developed tests that were amyloid measurements in the brain using PET scanning is that doctors were very surprised to find out that many times they thought clinically someone had Alzheimer’s disease, but then the amyloid test indicated they did not have the amyloid pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. And recent papers published with very large numbers of patients showed that up to 60% of the time doctors would change their diagnosis and management when learning about the amyloid pathology. 

We hope that a blood test that tells us about the overall amount of Alzheimer’s pathology might even make a bigger impact across a larger number of patients. 

Gillis: What are your plans for the future? When can we expect this to be on the market and used in clinical practice?

Mintun: Well, we’re very excited about looking into ways that a blood test can be used in the way we design clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease and help make it easier for a patient to know if they are a candidate for Alzheimer’s disease. We’re proceeding on trying to find the best way to incorporate this test into our current trials. 

In terms of when this will be available as a clinical test? That is a much harder thing to say. But I think you can be assured we recognize this is very exciting. We have multiple physicians around the world and scientists around the world that are also excited. And we will be working with both Lilly and the community to figure out how to make it available the best way possible as a clinical test as soon as the right kinds of refinements are established.

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral science researcher. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over five years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets.