Bioscience is playing a key role in a new multimillion pound project which involves the most rigorous series of tests ever staged to detect Alzheimer’s disease.

The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study, which is funded by the National Institute of Health Research and the Medical Research Council (MRC), hopes to dramatically improve the success rate of clinical trials for treatments in Alzheimer’s disease.

Costing £6.9 million, the research project has been designed to identify measureable characteristics, known as biomarkers, which can detect the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease very early on in the progression of the disease – when a person may have no obvious symptoms. Between 2002 and 2012, 99% of clinical trials into treatments for Alzheimer’s disease failed with experts identifying a probable reason as the fact that treatments are being tested on those who already have irreparable damage to the brain.

They say it is likely that treatments will be more effective in slowing or stopping the further onset of dementia at earlier stages of the disease. Also, by targeting people in the earlier stages, it should be possible to design better clinical trials for new treatments. The team, led by the University of Oxford, will work with colleagues at eight UK universities and the Alzheimer’s Society, with the project also receiving support from a coalition of biopharma companies. They will perform up to 50 tests on 250 volunteers from Dementias Platform UK, including tests that have never been used before to detect dementia.

The tests will include wearable devices that will give researchers detailed information on people’s movement and gait, and sophisticated retinal imaging that will look at subtle changes affecting a person’s central and peripheral vision. An estimated 46.8m people worldwide were living with dementia in 2015, and with an ageing population in most developed countries, predictions suggest this number may double by 2050. Currently, there is no known cure for the disease and the few treatments available treat symptoms, rather than slow or stop its progression.

Professor Simon Lovestone, lead researcher and Professor of Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said: “We know that Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor.

“Previous studies have shown changes to the brain as early as 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise. If we can identify the biomarkers present in this very early stage, we have the chance of treating the disease earlier, which is vital if we are to prevent damage to people’s memory and thinking.”

Dr Rob Buckle, director of science programmes at the MRC, said: “Our goal is to find treatments that can slow down or even stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Finding biomarkers for clinical trials is crucial for fast-tracking decisions as to whether a trial should stop or continue, and the faster we can find out which drugs work and which ones don’t, the faster we can benefit patients.”

The partners involved in the study are: University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University College London, King’s College London, West London Mental Health Trust/Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Manchester, University of Edinburgh, Cambridge Cognition, Imanova, Aridhia, Exprodo, Sage Bionetworks, TrialSpark, Optos, IXICO, Berry Consultants, AstraZeneca /MedImmune and the Alzheimer’s Society.

In a separate development, Aducanumab, an antibody developed by the University of Zurich, has been shown to trigger a significant reduction of harmful beta-amyloid plaques in patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers demonstrated in an early stage clinical study that, after one year of treatment with Aducanumab, cognitive decline could be significantly slowed in antibody-treated patients as opposed to the placebo group.

Roger M Nitsch, professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the university, said: “The results of this clinical study make us optimistic that we can potentially make a great step forward in treating Alzheimer’s disease.”

A total of 165 patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease were treated in the trial and the promising effects of Aducanumab are being further investigated in two large phase three clinical studies involving more than 300 centres in 20 countries throughout North America, Europe, and Asia and taking in 2,700 patients.