New blood test that screens for Alzheimer's disease one step closer to reality

A new blood test that screens for Alzheimer's may be one step closer to reality and is already being billed as a game-changer.  

The blood is tested for a type of protein and can screen the disease with "high accuracy", even before symptoms begin to show. 

It's now making global headlines, and helping make it happen is a leading Kiwi researcher. 

Imran Sherwani is an Olympic great who scored two goals to secure gold for Great Britain in Seoul 88.  

But the unforgettable moment is a fading memory for 61-year-old Sherwani, who has Alzheimer's.  

"We thought that something was wrong, but we didn't have a diagnosis and so to see your dad change and be frustrated, not be able to do the things he used to and not have an answer to what it was, that was really frustrating for us," Imran's son Zac Sherwani said. 

By the time he was finally diagnosed, four years of potential treatment had been lost.  

Now, that devastating and drawn-out process is set to change.  

A simple blood test has been shown to detect levels of a protein called P-TAU-217 - an indicator of damaging plaque that builds up inside the brain.  

Trials indicate it is as accurate as current invasive procedures - including a lumber puncture or scan.  

"Moving forward in our health system, it would be a game changer," Auckland research fellow from the Centre for Brain Research Dr Erin Cawston told Newshub.

Dr Cawston is the Kiwi helping to make it all happen.

"It is wonderful, it is a little bit surreal," she said.

She just spent four months in Sweden with the world-class Alzheimer's research team, whose blood test work has recently made global headlines. 

"It is amazing to see this paper in JAMA, now we can get people excited about this area and moving forward we can engage New Zealand in the conversation as well," Dr Cawston said. 

There's hope the blood test could be rolled out in some countries within the next five years. 

And it could go hand-in-hand with drugs to cure the disease. Although they don't exist just yet, researchers, including Kiwis, are working on making that happen too. 

"When we get a drug that is effective in preventing Alzheimer's disease then you will see a situation, just as we have now for statins, everybody over a certain age, 50 or 60 or so,  would go to their GP and have this blood test," Genetics Institute's Professor David Curtis said.   

"Anyone with a high level would get a drug that would prevent them from developing Alzheimer's and you would transform the situation."

About 55 million people worldwide have Alzheimer's, with one person being diagnosed every three seconds. 

Dementia affects about 70,000 Kiwis, and it costs the country about $2.5 billion. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease - accounting for nearly 80 percent of cases.   

The rate of progression for the disease varies widely. On average, once diagnosed, people live for another three to 11 years.  

"To be able to prevent people having the experience that we did - diagnosis after four years - that would be amazing," Zac said. 

 And it's all thanks to more than a little help from New Zealand.