A team of British scientists claims they can soon release the world's first blood test that identifies the risk of Alzheimer's. If so, the NHS Trust of UK will stand to save billions of pounds per year, as Alzheimer's disease, one of the most common neurological diseases in the western world, costs the NHS up to 17 billion pounds per year.
According to the scientists, they have identified a series of proteins, which are most commonly found in those with a predisposition to Alzheimer's.
In this case, such a test would be a life saver, as an early diet of the recommended omega-3 fatty acids and vegetables may well keep the debilitating neurological ailment at bay.
An estimated 700,000 people in the UK have dementia, and more than half of these have Alzheimer's. Experts believe that delaying the onset of dementia by five years could save 30,000 lives annually.
Alzheimer's affects one in 10 people over the age of 65. The only clinical tests are expensive brain scans carried out in hospitals or painful lumbar punctures to test spinal fluid, which can have side effects.
The early stages are difficult to diagnose. The degenerative disease affects brain cells, which leads to memory loss and mood changes.
Meanwhile, the blood test is still to be put through rigorous trials and accordingly, it would not be available in GP surgeries for five to ten years.
Says Dr. Madhav Thambisetty, researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College: "The frustration for so many people has been that by the time you are diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it is effectively too late to do much about it. The challenge has been to find what may cause Alzheimer's and to see if we can identify it before it sets in and therefore give patients an opportunity to have effective treatment.
"Our holy grail is to devise a simple blood test that can eventually be administered at a GP's surgery.
"We feel we are very close to that although we have to be cautious because the research needs more testing. It may be a few years before we have a test, but we are the closest we've ever been."
The optimism follows a study by the team last year, which compared protein levels in the blood of 500 Alzheimer's sufferers with those of healthy older people.
They were able to identify which proteins were present in higher quantities in those with Alzheimer's.
In any case, the proposed blood test would be an improvement on the current memory test undertaken by GPs, which is not only very upsetting for patients, but also takes up to a year for a diagnosis and only spots the disease once its symptoms have set in.
Says Research director Professor Simon Lovestone: "There are hundreds of drugs in development but the costs, even for large pharmaceutical companies, are immense and almost prohibitive.
"A year's clinical trial can cost £12million as large numbers of patients are needed to get accurate results.
"This research could revolutionize practice because a blood test that accurately monitors progression can reduce the numbers of patients needed for clinical trials."
Agrees Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer's Society: "A non-invasive blood test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease would be of enormous significance.
"Early diagnosis allows people with dementia and their caregivers to start preparing for their future."