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Attributions: Shinjini Saha

Having read multiple scientific articles on Alzheimer’s disease (AD), we felt like we had a good grip on the current research. But we felt we were missing something. Our goal in part is to detect the disease, which involves working with doctors. So, we went and good feedback from them.

Dr. David Caplan                                                     Dr. Mark W. Albers

We first went to talk to Dr. David Caplan (MD, PhD, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Neurologist, Massachusetts General Hospital) We had a long discussion with him about what the current methods of diagnosis of AD were. It was obvious that the current methods are inadequate. They are solely based on psychological test. Sometimes, it is easy to assess whether a person has the disease, when the characteristics a patient is displaying are abnormal compared to normal aging, but sometimes it is very difficult. Dr. Caplan gave us an example of a 80-year-old MIT civil engineer. He was showing characteristics of AD, yet had brilliant discussions about his work time and again--his symptoms were masked. In the early stages of AD, symptoms can be incredibly varied, depending on where the neural degradation began. “It is all subjective”, Dr. Caplan said. To an expert, sometimes there is no question that the patient is displaying Alzheimer’s symptoms, but very often, even they have to send patients to neuropsychologists, to evaluate symptoms with those of other neural diseases that overlap (eg, Parkinson’s disease). When we asked about early detection for AD, he said, “this is where the field is now.” There are a couple of methods. But they all have their problems. But even if there is a good method, he said, there is currently nothing we can do to treat the disease.

We also talked to Dr. Mark W. Albers (MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Neurology, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital). We discussed with him the problem of treating the disease even if early detection was possible. He thought the drugs that failed with late Alzheimer’s patients might be effective when the disease had not spread too much. He also told us about a promising drug that was under clinical trials.

We talked to Dr. Albers about our synthetic biology based detection and treatment system. He was enthusiastic about our work. He warned us about the complexities of the disease but also gave us ideas about how we could make it better, for example, by adding a failsafe1 in our system, so that in case of unforeseen complications, it can be switched off immediately. We also talked about delivering our system to brain cells, and how receptive patients would be to the options. He gave us some potential methods that could be effective, such as viral delivery or intrathecal injections, but also told us that if our circuit works, the delivery would be a big project of its own.

When asked about the patient experience, Dr. Caplan and Dr. Albers described Alzheimer’s disease being difficult on the caregivers. Dr. Albers gave us an example of a condition in which a region in the parietal lobe of the brain called insight is damaged. This region is responsible for informing a person whether or not their body is in perfect condition. If it is damaged in Alzheimer’s disease, the patient feels fine and does not know that something is wrong with them. While on the other hand, the caregivers can only watch the patient’s condition deteriorate.

These interviews, on top of providing valuable scientific insight for our project, greatly strengthened our belief of the importance of our project and also elucidated the challenges we would have to overcome.

1We seriously considered this suggestion but did not have the time to implement it over the summer.