Extraordinary vision sparks Alzheimer’s breakthrough
Philanthropy has turned a ‘left-field’ idea into technology that could soon be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.
The best discoveries often begin with a dream that seems unlikely at the time.
Researchers Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden and Dr Xavier Hadoux believed they could develop an eye test to detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease utilising technology like that used in NASA satellites.
Their idea turned into action in 2015 when prominent scientist Professor Bob Williamson AO, the scientific director of the Yulgilbar Alzheimer’s Research Program, challenged them to develop their concept.
Last year, they published a study in Nature Communications which showed that their new test accurately identified brain changes that suggest Alzheimer’s disease.
A few months later, they received funding to develop the technology into a camera that can be used in eye clinics.
“Our initial idea was left of field,’’ says Associate Professor van Wijngaarden. “But hyperspectral imaging technology could soon become reality thanks largely to philanthropists like ‘Bails’ Myer AC who supported our research from the start.”
The new test uses a special camera with multicolour imaging to measure a protein, amyloid beta, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and accumulates in the retina at the back of the eye up to 20 years before symptoms appear.
Dr Hadoux says hyperspectral imaging uses a rainbow-coloured light to see the retina in a new way.
“Our study shows that there are differences between the way the light is reflected from the retinas of people with amyloid beta deposits in the brain and from the retinas of people with lower levels of the protein,” he says.
Associate Professor van Wijngaarden says philanthropy has permeated every stage of the research.
“The project has been backed from the very start by Baillieu and Sarah Myer, Samantha Baillieu AM and Jeanne Pratt AC via the Yulgilbar Alzheimer’s Research Program.
“The H&L Hecht Trust, Viertel Foundation, Joan Margaret Ponting Trust, Coopers Brewery Trust, Cylite CEO Steve Frisken and National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation also provided tremendous support.”
Philanthropy also funded the expensive research camera needed for the non-invasive test, and the team is now developing a less costly version with support from the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation.
The team is also embarking on a larger, second study, supported by new grants from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) and Perpetual’s IMPACT Philanthropy Program.
This included more than $600 000 from the ADDF, via a grant backed by Bill Gates, Leonard Lauder, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos and the Dolby Foundation.
In December, Enlighten Imaging, a start-up company incubated at CERA and led by Associate Professor van Wijngaarden and Dr Hadoux, received Australian Government BioMedTech Horizons grant support to help bring this technology from the lab to the clinic. This funding, together with that provided by the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation, will help to make this promising technology accessible to all.
The next steps
Associate Professor van Wijngaarden and Dr Hadoux hope that within five years all eye clinics will be equipped with this technology to test for Alzheimer’s and possibly other brain diseases.
Both say that their work, which could dovetail with research into early therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, would not have been possible without the generosity of others.
“There’s no way that we would have gotten it off the ground,” Associate Professor van Wijngaarden says.
“Sustained support from philanthropists and other organisations is now yielding real results.”