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Joining forces to develop the first blood test for diagnosing dementia

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘22
Key Researchers
A/Prof Cherie Chiang
Honorary Research Fellow
Introduction

WEHI’s Associate Professor Andrew Webb and the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Associate Professor Cherie Chiang are developing an early diagnosis test for dementia at the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre.

Andrew:

We first met when we were interviewing a new candidate for Cherie’s lab.

I’d worked quite a bit with Cherie’s boss at the time, Frank Bowling, former Director of Pathology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Co-Chief Investigator at the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre. Cherie is now the Head of Chemical Pathology at RMH.

She’s been wonderful to work with. Very dedicated, very hardworking and seriously intelligent.

“I think Cherie and I have built a high level of trust and that has enabled us to rely on each other. Our labs have grown into a strong, tightly-knit collaborative team.”
Associate Professor Andrew Webb

Critical need

Our fundamental driver is the critical need for early diagnosis. There’s currently no blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. When patients get a diagnosis from a neurologist or neuropsychiatrist, it’s never absolutely confirmed.

We just do not know enough about the molecular underpinnings of the family of disorders that dementia represent. For effective interventions, we must understand the mechanics, but also reliably diagnose dementia early enough so treatment is a viable option.

Our project aims to provide a better understanding of these mechanics and create a path for translating these discoveries to provide earlier and more comprehensive diagnosis.

“Globally, there’s a large missing piece in our ability to translate evidence about dementia into practice – the centre is bridging that gap.”
Associate Professor Andrew Webb

The project combines my team of researchers and technology specialists with Cherie’s expertise in pathology. With her help, we’ve implemented approaches that align with the guidelines that pathology needs to see from a clinical utility perspective, to fast-track the translational process.

We’re also working with ASPREE, an amazing biobanking study set up by John McNeil at Monash University, with a database of 12,000 volunteers and extensive clinical information.

We’ve now reached an incredibly exciting phase, with infrastructure up and running, and projects well underway. I can’t wait to see what our high-performing team will produce over the next 18 months.

Andrew Webb and Cherie Chiang photographed in front of a colourful tapestry
Professor Andrew Webb and Associate Professor Cherie Chiang

Cherie:

Working with Andrew on this project has been fantastic. Andrew is so passionate and has great vision to see the potential of where the research is heading, clear goals and end points on what we need to do to overcome barriers.

“The Holy Grail is to identify dementia or Alzheimer’s disease early, because in the early stages there is the possibility of disease modification.”
Associate Professor Cherie Chiang

It’s a comfortable, productive relationship. When you share a common vision it’s very easy to work together, bouncing ideas off each other.

Translation pipeline

The vision of the centre is to develop biomarkers for the ageing brain, to enable and expedite a pipeline for translating biomarkers from the research lab into the routine lab and improve care. The Holy Grail is to identify dementia or Alzheimer’s disease early, because in the early stages there is the possibility of disease modification.

If we have a marker that clearly identifies a cohort of patients who are at the early stages of the disease, then services can be put in place to help this group of patients.

“Andrew is so passionate and has great vision to see the potential of where the research is heading, clear goals and end points on what we need to do to overcome barriers.”
Associate Professor Cherie Chiang

I’d never thought about incorporating a research lab into the workflow of a routine hospital lab previously.

I’ve learnt that this collaboration allows us to shape and develop an assay – a type of scientific analysis – so it’s exactly what is required clinically rather than just relying on a commercial off-the-shelf product.

Developing an assay is a risk because sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve learnt from Andrew to never give up. With Andrew’s encouragement and leadership, he has really pushed the team to explore ideas for assay improvement.

We’re in the process of generating data right now and I’m really proud of how far we’ve come with the Colonial Foundation collaboration.

First published on 01 June 2022
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘22
WEHI Authors
A/Prof Cherie Chiang
Honorary Research Fellow
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