In what could be a major step forward in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, researchers at Georgetown University say they have developed a blood test that can predict if a healthy person will develop the disease within three years.
Appearing in the April issue of "Nature Medicine," published Sunday, the paper by researchers at Georgetown and six other institutions says the predictions of who will develop the disease are 90 percent accurate.
No cure or effective treatment exists for Alzheimer's disease, cases of which the World Health Organization expects to double every 20 years, from 35.6 million people worldwide in 2010 to more than 115 million by 2050.
Dr. Howard J. Federoff, executive vice president of health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center, said one reason drugs have failed to slow or reverse the disease could be that the drugs were evaluated too late in the disease process. That may change, he said, with the new blood test.
"This is the first time a highly sensitive and specific test has been able to predict who will become demented," he told NBC News.
Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, told NBC the study addresses a "critical need in the field" to find an inexpensive and relatively easy way to screen large groups of people.
"This step is an important step in that direction but needs to be validated on a larger group of subjects more representative of a more general aging population," he said.
Alzheimer’s experts not involved in the research stressed the preliminary nature of the findings but said that they provide hope that tests in clinics could soon be available.
“It is interesting and exciting,” Dr. Mary Sano, director of the Alzheimer Disease Research Center at the Mount Sinai Hospital,told ABC News. “But more work has to be done.”
Dr. Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, told the network the next hurdle is getting a reliable test that can be widely used.
“It is intriguing research, but it is still too preliminary for use in the doctor’s office,” she said. She added, however, that the quest for a simple blood test to look for signs of early disease is crucial.