Fukushima Medical Univ. team finds means of early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease

Photo caption: Kyoka HOSHI, postdoctoral researcher Hiromi ITO, associate professor Yasuhiro HASHIMOTO, professor emeritus

A team of researchers from the School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry at Fukushima Medical University has discovered for the first time in the world that transferrin -- a type of protein contained in the brain's spinal fluid -- could be used as a possible earmark for early detection of Alzheimer's disease. The team has found a tendency that the weaker a patient's cognitive functions are, the less the density of the protein's content becomes, according to the announcement the university made on Sept. 16. The research outcome may possibly open the way to detect the disease before symptoms appear and help prevent patients' conditions from deteriorating through medication. The study team was led by postdoctoral researcher Kyoka Hoshi, 53, and associate professor Hiromi Ito, 49, of the Department of Biochemistry. Researchers from Tohoku University and elsewhere also cooperated in the study. Transferrin plays the role of transporting iron in the blood. It is combined with a characteristically shaped substance called a "high-mannose sugar chain." In the research, spinal fluid was collected from about 500 collaborators with Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive disorder to measure density levels of transferrin. As a result, the team found out that the density of transferrin tends to be low among people showing weak cognition functioning. Alzheimer's is a progressive neurologic disorder in which decreased nerve cells cause the brain to shrink, resulting in memory loss to the extent where daily life is disrupted. In June, a new drug that impedes the progress of the disease was approved in the United States for the first time in the world, but it does not have the functional effect on patients of restoring a state of normalcy. According to Yasuhiro Hashimoto, 67, professor emeritus of Fukushima Medical University who oversaw the research, there are about 3 million Alzheimer's patients in Japan. "The path has now been opened to prevent Alzheimer's disease from developing and showing symptoms by combining the achievement of this research and new medications," Hashimoto said of the significance of the study team's project. In cooperation with a domestic manufacturer of testing equipment, the university's researchers developed a device capable of automatically analyzing density levels of transferrin, which are currently measured by using spinal fluid taken from the lumbar spine area through a needle injection. Hoping that anyone can receive examinations easily, they now aim to establish a method of analysis using blood serum, which can be collected on the occasion of regular health checkups and in other convenient, much less painstaking settings. Putting such a device to practical use requires studies on its clinical performance first and then governmental approval. It is expected to take at least three to four years before it is made available commercially. (Translated by Kyodo News)