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Japanese Nobel laureate's team makes device to detect Alzheimer's from few drops of blood

Shimadzu Corp. Executive Research Fellow Koichi Tanaka explains the new device at the company in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward on June 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Fukutomi)

KYOTO -- Japanese manufacturer Shimadzu Corp. on June 22 announced the release of a device that helps diagnose Alzheimer's disease from just a few drops of blood, using mass analysis technology developed by the company's Executive Research Fellow Koichi Tanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2002 for the achievement.

    The device, priced at 100 million yen (about $902,000) excluding tax, helps estimate protein accumulation levels in the brain. As only a tiny amount of blood is needed for examination, the new system puts less burden on patients compared to conventional methods.

    Though it had been known that the beta-amyloid protein begins to accumulate in the brain some 20 years before Alzheimer's disease symptoms appear, test methods were limited to costly positron emission tomography (PET) scans and cerebral spinal fluid analysis, which place a huge burden on patients.

    Following joint research with the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology in Aichi Prefecture, Shimadzu in 2018 published in the British scientific journal Nature the new method to estimate the beta-amyloid protein's accumulation levels in the brain from only a few drops of blood -- equivalent to about 0.5 milliliters -- by detecting the slight leakage of a beta-amyloid-related substance. The manufacturer has since been working on putting the technology to practical use. Combining the new device's test data with diagnostic imaging and other methods, doctors can make comprehensive diagnoses.

    Tanaka had commented after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002, "In five years, I want to make it possible to diagnose the presence or absence of hundreds of diseases from a simple drop of blood."

    While reflecting on his comment at the time, Tanaka said apologetically in a June 22 news conference at Shimadzu headquarters in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, "I spoke of a farfetched future that I wouldn't have mentioned if I was a (medical) expert." He added, "We need to conduct more research so that our technologies will be used as methods to solve challenges including developing medications."

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Fukutomi, Kyoto Bureau)

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