partnerships between Halifax universities and researchers have spurred a world-leading
breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research.
Researchers Dr. Ian Pottie of Mount Saint Vincent University and Dr. Sultan
Darvesh of Dalhousie University describe their innovation as something that has
“never been done before. Never,” and holds the potential to completely
transform the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
With development and preliminary testing now complete, the research team recently
shared their groundbreaking results with the world, publishing their study in
the Journal of Nuclear Medicine
“the highest impact journal for the field,” noted Dr. Pottie. The print edition
was released on February 1, 2016.
Breakthrough diagnostic agent being developed
Through extensive collaboration and determination, Drs. Pottie and Darvesh,
together with several other Halifax-based researchers, have developed a new type
of diagnostic agent that it is hoped will advance the fight against Alzheimer’s
disease. Dr. Ian Pottie, Professor of Chemistry and Physics at the Mount
been working with Dr. Sultan Darvesh for 10 years on this project. Dozens of undergraduate
and graduate science students at the two universities have contributed to the
project over the years.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects millions of
people worldwide. A major obstacle in treating the disease is not having an
accurate early diagnosis. As the doctors explain it, “A definitive diagnosis of
Alzheimer’s is not yet possible during life.” Up until now, only brain autopsies have been
able to confirm a patient’s Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. New research,
though, shows promise for a non-invasive diagnosis while patients are still
alive – and treatable. As Dr. Darvesh puts it: “We have a solution.”In a lab at Mount Saint Vincent University, Dr. Ian Pottie has been helping
build and fine-tune a compound to detect Alzheimer’s within living patients.
Mount lab is home to the synthesis, characterization and biochemical investigations
of this puzzle,” explained Dr. Pottie. Then at Dalhousie, the compounds are put
to the test.
The key is a small radioactive molecule, synthesized to bind to a protein associated
with the pathological structures within Alzheimer-stricken brains. “It has
taken a huge amount of effort to do this,” said Dr. Darvesh. The team has put
countless hours into testing hundreds of compound variations. The breakthrough? It works.
In early December 2015, a new battery of tests showed the compound tested clearly
binding to the protein target in diseased brains. These results were a sign
that this research is headed in the right direction.
Towards clinical trials and beyond
The next step will be refining the compound for human use. “We are now focusing
our efforts towards clinical trials,” said Dr. Pottie.
“This is a major breakthrough in the lab,” added Dr. Darvesh. “We could have
given up five years ago for many, many, many reasons. The motto in our lab is
‘Failure is not an option’, as quoted in the movie Apollo 13.”
In addition to the work on diagnostic compounds, the research team has been
busy securing the much needed funds to support their efforts.
To date, this
work has been supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health
Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Natural Sciences and
Engineering Research Council, the Nova Scotia Research and Innovation Trust, the
Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, and the Mount committee on Research and
The research has the potential to save lives – but it’s expensive. A single test of each radioactive compound
costs upwards of $1,000, and many tests will be needed to refine agents for
human imaging analysis. The good news is that they are closer than ever before.
Drs. Pottie and Darvesh described their current compound as the “economy sedan”
version. What they are aiming for now is the “formula one” version.
Throughout the research process, the doctors rely on undergraduate students to
help. “Students have played a very important role in this work,” said Dr. Pottie.
“Students have been propelling this research for years, through summer and
co-op work placements, honours theses, and classroom work.”
With the research done by the Halifax team, Alzheimer’s patients may soon benefit
from better diagnoses and improved treatment. As Dr. Darvesh says, “Patients
are the ones who drive everything we do.”
And the name of the life-changing agent, once released?
In the words of Dr. Darvesh: “We plan on naming it the Halifax