A new test for diagnosing Niemann-Pick disease

May 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The new test can use already collected dried blood spots from heel sticks to diagnose NPC. Image credit: US Air Force

Niemann–Pick disease is a rare genetic disease with devastating effects. For one type of the disease, known as type C, defects in lysosomal storage within the cell lead to impaired neurological function. In infants, these symptoms can be especially difficult to recognize. They often include subtle changes in children’s behavior, such as failure to meet expected cognitive milestones or inability to control balance.

Until recently, the first-line diagnostic test for NPC disease has involved a skin biopsy and filipin staining, which is invasive, cumbersome and expensive. Patients with NPC typically often go up to five years without a diagnosis, drastically limiting the possibility of early interventions.

In a paper just published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Daniel Ory of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues lay the groundwork for a promising new diagnostic test for NPC. Importantly, the new noninvasive assay produces results within a day instead of months.

Here’s how it came to be.

The team used mass spectrometry to analyze dried blood spots, collected at various times after birth, from patients known to have NPC. They found three bile acids biomarkers that could clearly distinguish NPC patients from people without the disease.

The scientists then determined the structures of the bile acids. Ory and colleagues identified one bile acid as a trihydroxycholanic acid and another as its glycine conjugate.

As the second bile acid helped the team distinguish NPC patients from non-NPC patients more consistently, the researchers decided to use it to develop a new diagnostic test.

As a diagnostic test, Ory says, the assay already is being used at Washington University. He expects other centers to follow suit.

For its use in newborn screening, Ory said, researchers will need to put the assay to the test in the undiagnosed newborn population to ensure its usefulness in recognizing NPC in that age group, a process Ory believes will take several years.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t yet approved treatments for NPC, a promising drug called cyclodextrin is rapidly moving through clinical trials. The most effective treatment strategies will need to intervene early in the disease process, which is something the new test could accomplish. “We’re really trying to make an impact in this NPC community by being able to develop the therapies and being able to diagnose early,” says Ory. The approach “we’ve taken over the last 10 years, I feel like, it’s getting close to bearing fruit.”

Bree Yanagisawa, the guest author of this blog post, is a science writing intern at ASBMB Today. You can follow her on Twitter @BreeTalksSci.

Bree Yanagisawa, the guest author of this blog post, is a science writing intern at ASBMB Today. You can follow her on Twitter @BreeTalksSci.

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