PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Diagnosing Alzheimer’s sooner. That’s the goal of a new clinical trial that’s just launching in the Tampa Bay area.
Doctors are confident it could drastically impact the lives of thousands of people dealing with the disease.
The trial points to the retinas in a patient’s eyes as possible clues to diagnosing Alzheimer's using equipment that’s already standard in many optometry and opthalmology offices. Doctors are hopeful the new detection could mean diagnosing the disease up to 20 years before symptoms start.
The clinical trials are crucial for families like the Lees. Kristine Lee watched as Alzheimer’s slowly stole her grandma’s memory, slipping away one phone call at a time.
“We’d call and say ‘Hi Grandma! We love you hope you’re doing well.’ My aunt would say, ‘She heard your voice. She smiled,’ but eventually that progressed,” Lee said.
Lee lost her grandma by the time she turned 18, but her death soon shaped her entire career when she joined the Alzheimer’s Association and started heading up races in an effort to raise money in search for a cure.
“I was like this is where I belong,” Lee said with a smile.
Dr. Stuart Sinoff, a neurology physician at BayCare knows that pain too.
“I lost my mother to Alzheimer's in February,” he said softly.
Coincidentally, her diagnosis happened years after Sinoff began researching new ways to detect Alzheimer’s .
“My mom was not clearly an Alzheimer’s patient at that time so that kind of happened to come along because we’re all touched by this condition,” Sinoff explained.
Now, Sinoff and doctors from Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, are about to launch a $5 million clinical trial to study retinas to detect Alzheimer’s years before memory loss begins.
“When you leave your keys, when you’re wondering what your shopping list was, is it really just the relatively expected mild change in aging or do you have an important neurodegenerative disease that might be the beginning of something really disastrous? This research will pave the way for patients to find out sooner,” Sinoff added.
The test is not only faster but costs a fraction of standard diagnosis. The retina scan is estimated to cost around $50, compared to $4,500 for the average PET scan.
The research comes at a crucial time. Deaths from Alzheimer’s have spiked 145 percent from 2000 to 2017, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Florida ranks second in the nation for the most people diagnosed with the disease.
“We really need to stop this. It’s becoming a big epidemic problem,” Sinoff elaborated.
“We don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve experienced,” Lee said.
If the trial is successful, soon the retina test could be offered at most eye doctors, and could help millions of Americans begin treatment faster than ever.
BayCare is still looking for people in St. Pete and Clearwater to enroll in the study. As part of the study, researchers will take pictures of the retinas of patients with special blue, green and infrared lasers (doctors say they are completely safe), allowing for a microscopic look at the anatomy, changes in pigment and the movement of red blood cells in the retina.
Doctors are looking for 330 participants between age 55 and 80. They’re hoping to get a mix of people ranging from low-risk and very healthy , to those with memory concerns, and people who have mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Each participant will be examined at four different points over a three-year period, and each study visit includes an eye exam, a medical history discussion, some tests of how people think and how well they remember new information, and measures of mood, walking and balancing, sleep habits and other types of medical information.
If you are interested in finding out more about the study in Pinellas County, you can call Catrina Montgomery at 727-298-6077.
This story was originally published by Sarah Hollenbeck at WFTS.