Who's at Risk of Alzheimer's? GE and J&J Hope to Find Out

GE Healthcare (GE) , a powerhouse in medical imaging and diagnostics, is teaming up with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) to research methods of detecting Alzheimer's in patients -- even before they begin to exhibit symptoms of the devastating disease.

"The collaboration we are announcing today is part of this effort to understand Alzheimer's," said Pascale Witz, GE Healthcare, Medical Diagnostics President and CEO in a press release. "Finding a biosignature, essentially a collection of biomarkers, that identifies people at risk from the disease, would enable physicians to make more informed decisions about patient care. Importantly, it might also accelerate the development of successful treatments for the disease."

The terms of the deal between J&J's Janssen Pharmaceutical unit and GE Healthcare were not disclosed. The research effort is expected to combine the two companies' expertise in data integration, informatics, genomics and imaging.

A Global Crisis

It is hoped that, through non-invasive or minimally invasive procedures, very early detection of Alzheimer's could lead to significantly earlier intervention -- while helping to monitor the disease's progression. The identification of biosignatures linked to Alzheimer's could also aid in the research and development of drugs for treating the disease.

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Alzheimer's is a progressive, incurable brain disease that affects more than five million Americans. It's the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. and costs as much as $172 billion annually, according to a recent report by the Alzheimer's Association.

The disease is also a growing medical and economic problem around the globe. Alzheimer's Disease International says about 35.6 million people worldwide are now living with dementia. The total number of people with Alzheimer's is expected nearly double by 2030, to 65.7 million, and rise to 115.4 million by 2050. The worldwide costs of Alzheimer's, meanwhile, will reportedly exceed 1% of global GDP this year, an estimated $604 billion -- with those numbers expected to jump 85% by 2030, to over $1.1 trillion.

Drugmakers Share Data

And there's no quick and easy cure. Some pharmaceutical research programs on Alzheimer's have come to a standstill. Most recently, Eli Lilly (LLY) halted late stage trial of an experimental drug, that ended up making Alzheimer's symptoms worse. The disease has proven so tough that some drugmakers agreed to share data on their failed trials.

GE, meanwhile, is already in a late-stage trial for its amyloid PET imaging compound, Flutemetamol. Researchers think amyloid -- a protein that forms clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer's -- may begin to accumulate in the brain decades before Alzheimer's patients show symptoms. Having PET scanners identifying beta amyloid, experts say, could be another weapon in early detection.

As for J&J, it invested last year in Elan (ELN), which has an Alzheimer program joint venture with Pfizer (PFE). Together they are developing a drug called bapineuzumab, also in late-stage trials. But bapineuzumab is also experiencing setbacks. High-dose trials of the drug were halted last year after some patients developed vasogenic edema: the accumulation of water in brain tissue.

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