RMH WEHI
21 June 2022
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News

The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s (RMH) Associate Professor Cherie Chiang and WEHI's Associate Professor Andrew Webb are developing an early diagnosis test for dementia at the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre

The pair recently caught up to explain this project in their own words.

Andrew: We first met when we were interviewing a new candidate for Cherie’s lab. I’d worked quite a bit with Cherie’s boss at the time, Frank Bowling, former Director of Pathology at the RMH and Co-Chief Investigator at the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre. Cherie is now the Head of Chemical Pathology at the RMH.

She’s been wonderful to work with. Very dedicated, very hard-working and seriously intelligent. Cherie and I have built a high level of trust and that has enabled us to rely on each other. Our labs have grown into a strong, tightly-knit collaborative team.

We’re so grateful to the Colonial Foundation for making this research possible, through the $15 million commitment that established the centre. Globally, there’s a large missing piece in our ability to translate evidence about dementia into practice – the centre is bridging that gap.

Our fundamental driver is the critical need for early diagnosis. There’s currently no blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. When patients get a diagnosis from a neurologist or neuropsychiatrist, it’s never absolutely confirmed. For effective interventions, we must understand the mechanics, but also reliably diagnose dementia early enough so treatment is a viable option.

The project combines my team of researchers and technology specialists with Cherie’s expertise in pathology. With her help, we’ve implemented approaches that align with the guidelines that pathology needs to see from a clinical utility perspective, to fast-track the translational process.

We’re also working with ASPREE, an amazing biobanking study set up by John McNeil at Monash University, with a database of 12,000 volunteers and extensive clinical information.

We’ve now reached an incredibly exciting phase, with infrastructure up and running, and projects well underway. I can’t wait to see what our high-performing team will produce over the next 18 months.

Cherie: Working with Andrew on this project has been fantastic. Andrew is so passionate and has great vision to see the potential of where the research is heading, clear goals and end points on what we need to do to overcome barriers.

It’s a comfortable, productive relationship. When you share a common vision it’s very easy to work together, bouncing ideas off each other.

The vision of the centre is to develop biomarkers for the ageing brain, to enable and expedite a pipeline for translating biomarkers from the research lab into the routine lab and improve care. The holy grail is to identify dementia or Alzheimer’s disease early, because in the early stages there is the possibility of disease modification.

If we have a marker that clearly identifies a cohort of patients who are at the early stages of the disease, then services can be put in place to help this group of patients.

I’d never thought about incorporating a research lab into the workflow of a routine hospital lab previously. I’ve learnt that this collaboration allows us to shape and develop an assay, so it’s exactly what is required clinically rather than just relying on a commercial off-the-shelf product. It’s actually very exciting!

Developing an assay is a great risk because sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve learnt from Andrew to never give up. With Andrew’s encouragement and leadership, he has really pushed the team to explore ideas for assay improvement. We’re in the process of generating data right now and I’m really proud of how far we’ve come with the Colonial Foundation collaboration.

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