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‘Biomarker Factory’ launched to find new ways to detect and monitor neurodegenerative disease

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We know that often in neurodegenerative conditions, changes to the brain begin decades before symptoms appear. Many believe therefore that we stand a better chance of slowing or stopping the disease process, if we intervene with treatments at the earliest stages. But how do we detect these subtle biological changes, and identify those who are at most risk of developing disease?

Biomarkers have huge potential to transform our understanding of disease and the development of therapeutics. Short for ‘biological markers’, they are a measure – or a flag – of a biological state, helping us identify and monitor healthy biological processes or, crucially, harmful changes occurring in disease. Fluid biomarkers, such as molecules and proteins found in the blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) which bathes the brain, are of high interest as they are already providing useful information about the state of the brain. Cutting-edge technology now allows for ultrasensitive detection of biomarkers even in very early stages before disease symptoms present.


How will biomarkers help find cures for dementia?

There are two main ways that biomarkers can assist the search for new dementia treatments:

Detection – When testing treatments for the early stages of a disease like Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to recruit similar clinical trial participants that reliably go on to develop the condition. Researchers currently rely on costly genetic testing and brain imaging, invasive procedures to obtain CSF or highly variable diagnosis from wide-ranging symptoms. The development of an accurate blood test for each neurodegenerative disease would be transformational for medicine, not only hugely improving screening for clinical trials but eventually providing a low-cost diagnosis solution for the whole population.

Monitoring – The majority of neurodegenerative disorders progress over many years with new symptoms presenting as further brain regions are damaged. It is likely that it will additionally take a long time to see the positive effects of treatment in clinical trials. New biomarkers will allow us to monitor early biological changes following intervention, helping researchers make crucial decision such as whether to persevere or halt treatment. These biomarkers are also important for tracking disease progress in research models during critical phases of discovery science.

Biomarker Factory Lab 1 Crop

What is the Biomarker Factory?

The work of Prof Henrik Zetterberg, Group Leader at UK DRI at UCL, is trailblazing this area. Henrik’s group established the UK DRI Biomarker Factory in Spring 2021, following an initial proof-of-concept trial and grant from the Institute. Now in an advanced pilot stage, the high-performance analytical platform created is used for fluid biomarker development, validation and measurement. It can now also be accessed as a service for other researchers across the UK and beyond.


Prof Bart De Strooper, UK DRI Director, said:

“The UK DRI Biomarker Factory is world-leading in establishing novel, highly sensitive assays that can be used for the identification of new biomarkers. This will be truly transformational for our field and our race to cures for dementia.”

Despite challenges presented by the pandemic supply chains, in its first six months the team completed 21 projects and over 5000 samples, demonstrating the need and the output abilities.

We are so excited to be able to offer this platform to the research community, using exceptionally sensitive equipment to identify things we simply couldn’t before. Dr Amanda Heslegrave, who leads the service at the UK DRI at UCL

Why is the UK DRI well placed to lead in this area?

“Due to the variety of projects that we are involved in with respect to disease, fluid type or size, we are able to take a very broad view of the project and bring experience and knowledge from many different biomarker projects and disease perspectives to improve the interpretation of the results," said Prof Henrik Zetterberg, Group Leader, UK DRI at UCL.

To our knowledge, the UK DRI Biomarker Factory is the only available service of its kind, representing a unique resource which UK DRI researchers have privileged access to, and now we are very proud to be able to offer our services more widely to other research groups.”

The team is currently the most experienced academic lab in the UK harnessing the latest Quanterix Simoa technology since 2015. They use the HD-X technology, that provides a fully automated ultrasensitive biomarker measurement with up to 1000x greater sensitivity than traditional immunoassays alongside the SR-X benchtop platform which provides a more flexible option, useful for new assay validation.

The UK DRI Biomarker Factory has a fully trained team of technical staff providing expertise and three HD-X machines that provide the capacity to support biomarker measurement of small, medium, and large scale (2000+ samples) projects. The analysis is performed on human or animal CSF, plasma, or serum samples using single or multiplex Quanterix Simoa. The platform has the equipment and expertise to provide services both within the UK DRI and beyond.

The laboratory also has other technologies that can be used for a specific biomarker project such as ultrasensitive Single Molecule Counting (SMCxPRO) from Merck and Meso Scale Discovery instruments from MSD, as well as Luminex technology and regular ELISA platforms. All of these platforms allow the team to also ‘homebrew’ bespoke assays if there is no suitable assay for the protein a project wishes to measure, the team can work with to determine the most suitable antibodies and the appropriate platform to use. The team welcome visitors to the lab and if biomarker studies are a part of a PhD/Post Doc project they can assist to enable participation in the project, space in the lab permitting.

Biomarker Factory Lab 2

I'm a researcher - how can i access the biomarker service?

The team from UK DRI at UCL can advise on appropriate biomarkers and platforms, general study design and standard operating procedures for sample collection, processing and storage, as well as data interpretation. To ask any questions and seek further guidance specific to your request, please email ukdri.biomarker.enquiries@ucl.ac.uk.

I'm from Industry - can i access the biomarker service?

Please contact the Innovation and Business team for further information: Kay Penicud, UK DRI Director of Innovation and Business


Article published: 28 January 2022
Banner blood test image: Copyright owned by UK DRI Ltd

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