PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Inside a quiet, tucked-away lab in Brown University’s Biomedical Center sits an unassuming machine that, in the right hands, is helping unlock the secrets of the brain — specifically Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
With its clean lines and neon-colored panels, the machine resembles a futuristic refrigerator. It’s actually a technologically-advanced piece of laboratory equipment whose immunoassay analyzer detects biomarkers that — when combined with other tests — can serve as biological red flags for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Detection of biomarkers like these may make possible earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, enabling patients to seek treatment even before they experience symptoms, said Kristine Pelton, the director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science’s Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research Fluid Biomarkers Laboratory. The brand-new facility is helping to transform fluid biomarker-based research at the University, the state and the region, she said.
“A non-invasive, reproducible and cost-effective way to detect and measure biomarkers is a game-changer for the field and for patients,” said Pelton, who noted that biomarkers will also allow researchers to monitor subtle changes in patients’ conditions over time, which can help them fine-tune treatment plans.
It’s very difficult to measure biomarkers for Alzheimer’s, which are generated by the central nervous system and found in cerebrospinal fluid and, in lesser concentrations, blood. The standard procedures involve a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) — which is time-consuming, expensive and painful for patients. Biomarkers can also be measured through imaging tests like an MRI or a PET scan, but these tests are not easily accessible for most people.
But technology has been advancing to the point that immunoassay analyzers can now look for biomarkers in blood, which is much easier to obtain.
“If a doctor can order a simple blood test, the number of people that we can reach within our communities increases dramatically,” Pelton said. “In addition, by perfecting these blood-based biomarkers, we could potentially diagnose patients earlier when treatment interventions for neurodegeneration have a better chance at improving outcomes.”
Expanding Alzheimer’s research with cutting-edge technology
The Fluid Biomarkers Laboratory is a highly-anticipated component of the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, the center on Brown’s campus dedicated to the study of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Founded in 2021 with gifts of $25 million and $5 million from donors who wish to remain anonymous, the joint center integrates the expertise of the Carney Institute for Brain Science and Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine. Using tools like the new Quanterix Simoa HD-X Analyzer for immunoassay analysis will enable the facility to change experimental design and gather hard-to-obtain biological data.
Protein biomarkers such as beta-amyloid and tau are currently an area of intense research focus for their implications in Alzheimer’s disease.
Pelton came to Carney in March 2022 from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital. She jumped at the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art facility from the ground up in a geographic region that deeply needed what it would offer.