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Bengt Winblad

JPND Communications interviewed Bengt Winblad, coordinator of the JPND-supported BIOMARKAPD project

After a decade of disappointing drug trials, European researchers are finding new ways to understand Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, just in time for the anticipated “tidal wave” of cases.

With worldwide cases expected to triple by 2050, it is widely accepted that early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease will be vital to tackling these neurodegenerative diseases. The goal of new clinical trials in this area will be to treat early-stage patients with drugs that inhibit the destructive process before too many neurons have been lost. However, as the clinical symptoms in these early stages may be very subtle, or even absent, the tools currently used to diagnose these diseases cannot be relied upon for these new trials.

According to Bengt Winblad of the Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden “research tells us that instead of the current tools, we could use biomarkers to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s”. Ranked by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease as the world’s most prolific Alzheimer’s researcher, Winblad is coordinating one of the largest international collaborative projects ever undertaken in this area. The goal of the 3-year “BIOMARKAPD” project is to standardize Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s biomarker measurements across Europe. Supported by 19 different countries under the JPND initiative, the project results are predicted to transform the entire field of neurodegenerative disease research – leading to more definitive diagnosis, greater ability to measure disease progression and better assessment of new treatments.

“Nuts-and-bolts” science
Established biomarkers exist for early Alzheimer’s and promising candidates are underway for early Parkinson’s. However, a major problem today is the large variation that exists in biomarker measurements between different studies, centres and laboratories, which seriously jeopardizes their introduction into both clinical routines and clinical trials around the world. Standardizing biomarker measurements across Europe is a tricky business, and first requires standardized protocols on how to collect clinical samples from patients, how to perform the measurements and how to interpret the results. It is the veritable ‘nuts-and-bolts’ science – unglamorous but essential. However, such is the anticipated impact of the project results that world-leading laboratories from 21 countries (including Canada) are signed up to implement the BIOMARKAPD protocols.

Speaking at the project’s most recent general assembly in Barcelona, Winblad firmly believes that the resulting standards will have a major influence on clinical research and drug development for neurodegenerative conditions in general and for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in particular. The active involvement of all European JPND countries in the project not only provides enormous expertise, but also ensures that protocols developed can be applied by all the member states” he says.

New Biomarkers
Whereas BIOMARKAPD is focusing on existing biomarkers in the spinal fluid of patients with Alzheimer´s or Parkinson´s disease, the project will also support the development of new promising biomarkers through a central and a virtual biobank, located in Luxembourg. IBBL (Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg) will contain samples from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, including patients in very early disease stages, as well as healthy controls. The project will look to make these samples available to the scientific community to conduct field-changing research such as developing new assays and testing new biomarker candidates.

Why has this not happened until now?
The development and standardization of biomarkers typically demands significant financial and intellectual resources, and for individual research groups it does not offer the short-term rewards and long-term competitive advantage often used to assess decisions to commit resources. “In light of the urgent need for optimized and standardized Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s biomarkers and the ambitious goal of BIOMARKAPD to meet that need, it is fitting that multiple partners mobilize under the JPND umbrella, and through a coordinated effort, share the expense, risk and, ultimately, the benefits of the research”, says Winblad. The JPND is well-positioned to lead the push and marshal the necessary resources to make projects like this a reality”, he said.

With Winblad at the helm, BIOMARKAPD seems to be well on its way to achieving its goals.

* This interview was originally published in the January 2014 issue of Dementia in Europe magazine, published by Alzheimer Europe.

Read more about the BIOMARKAPD project here.