Prime Minister supports revolutionary early diagnosis effort


By Simon Aucott | Monday 21 May 2018

In an announcement made today, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined a new focus on early diagnosis of disease under the Grand Challenge on Artificial Intelligence in the Industrial Strategy.

The Prime Minister announced an aim to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of a range of health conditions including dementia. In her speech, she called artificial intelligence ‘a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease’ – and she particularly highlighted the potential for this approach to diagnose conditions much earlier.

The announcement aligns with our own ambition at Alzheimer’s Research UK. Improving early diagnosis of dementia is a key goal for research, and with your support, many of our scientists are already tapping into the potential for big data to achieve this. Only last week, a team of researchers using this approach revealed three new genes linked to the risk of Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia – findings that could lay the foundation to help revolutionise the way we diagnose the disease. In the longer-term, we are also embarking on a large-scale project to develop an accurate, cost-effective diagnostic tool that will allow us to diagnose dementia 15-20 years earlier than we do today.

Why does early diagnosis matter?

Right now, diagnosing dementia presents a challenge in part because we lack the ability to diagnose early enough. A diagnosis can help people living with dementia and their families begin to make sense of the symptoms they’re experiencing and help them to get the support they need. Improving diagnostic tools could make a huge difference, by ensuring people who already have dementia are able to get an accurate diagnosis. But ultimately, we hope improved early detection will also help us identify those at greatest risk of developing the condition in future.

Currently, it’s only after people begin to notice symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, that they may seek advice from their GP and receive a diagnosis. If we could change this narrative by diagnosing the diseases that cause dementia before symptoms appear, the potential for improving lives would be even greater.

We believe that early diagnosis will be essential for future treatments. There are a number of clinical trials in the final stages that could produce a life-changing treatment in the near future. We know that future treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are likely to be most successful if given in the earliest stages. We must be ready once a successful treatment is found to deliver it to the people who can benefit as quickly as possible – but to do this, we will need to be able to identify those people.

Diagnosing early also helps improve the quality of research being done to develop these treatments. Many researchers believe a lack of success in treatment development so far is likely due to diagnosing and treating people too late in the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s. We know early diagnosis helps us get the right people into clinical trials, which is crucial to bringing about the first life-changing treatment for dementia.

Why now?

In an age where almost everything we do results in an information and data trail, we are just beginning to harness advances in artificial intelligence and big data. Projects like Insight 46, Project iASiS and more are tapping in to a vital data network and using this tool to search for ways to understand, treat and ultimately defeat dementia.

Alzheimer’s Research UK hopes to develop a diagnostic test with a digital infrastructure that would together create a fingerprint indicative of early changes caused by Alzheimer’s and the other diseases that cause dementia.

The explosion of digital technologies that collect data about our daily lives, from wearable devices to smart phones to in-home monitoring systems, creates a rich ‘digital picture’ from which disease fingerprints could be extracted.

It is only now that we have the ability to store these previously unimaginable amounts of data and artificial intelligence coupled to more standard clinical measures that we can begin to make early diagnosis a reality.

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About the author

Simon Aucott

Team: Campaigning