Biomarkers are the main focus of a new research alliance between AstraZeneca (AZ) and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, US that will look for new and improved ways of diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s affects as many as five million Americans, yet little is known about its causes or how it progresses in patients, the partners note. Moreover, it has always been hard to make a definitive diagnosis of the condition. Studies by Washington University and others have shown that, by the time patients begin to show obvious symptoms of dementia, the disease has already caused extensive and largely irreversible damage to the brain.

These factors underline the importance of identifying biomarkers – characteristic changes in the brain and spinal fluid – that can be used to diagnose the disease earlier and with more certainty and subsequently to track responses to treatment, AZ and Washington University note. Their collaborative agreement includes research projects that will seek a better understanding of the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and tau proteins found in the central nervous system.

These proteins help to maintain the inner structures of nerve cells, the partners explain. Evidence suggests that tau proteins undergo a chemical change in Alzheimer’s patients, disrupting their ability to maintain nerve cell structure. As a result, the proteins “snarl in tangles” inside the cell, leading to cell death. Under the new collaboration, the researchers hope to identify changes in tau proteins present in the spinal fluid that can be added to a panel of indicators for Alzheimer’s disease.

Among other projects, the researchers will look for new genetic markers of Alzheimer’s disease risk and will test potential treatments developed by AstraZeneca in models used by Washington University for Alzheimer’s research.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center pioneered the Clinical Dementia Rating, the first technique for assessing dementia in the elderly and now the standard tool worldwide for detecting Alzheimer’s disease and assessing its clinical progression.