Every 3.2 seconds someone in the world is diagnosed with dementia. Approximately 46.8 million people live with dementia and it is estimated by 2050 this will more than double to 152 million people. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia. Diagnosis is complicated and a series of tests are required to achieve a diagnosis. By the time these tests are taken, it’s usually because the individual has been showing clear signs of dementia and the damage is already well underway.
Today, there is no single test which accurately diagnoses Alzheimer’s. A clinical assessment to diagnose Alzheimer’s is largely still a process of elimination and involves a combination of tests, from cognitive screening, neuropsychological tests, brain imaging tests, genetic tests, spinal fluid tests and PET scans for amyloid. This represents a significant hurdle not just for diagnosis, but for drug development as well. To find a cure for Alzheimer’s, researchers need to know how effective drugs are in halting, and potentially reversing, the disease. An important step towards achieving this is by identifying a toolkit of non-invasive “biomarkers” to diagnose dementia, measure disease progression and monitor the effectiveness of new therapeutic drugs.
This is what co-founders Dhivya Venkat and Dr Yamuna Krishnan are working to solve through their company, Esya Labs. Dr Krishnan is Professor of Chemistry and Brain Research Foundation Fellow at the Grossman Institute of Neuroscience and Quantitative Biology at the University of Chicago. She pioneered the application of DNA nanotechnology to live imaging and is the youngest woman in history to win India’s highest scientific recognition: the Bhatnagar award for Chemical Sciences.
Esya Labs is on a mission is to revolutionize the way neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, are currently diagnosed, building precision diagnostics using their breakthrough cell-scanning nanotechnology for early and accurate identification, well before the disease symptoms manifest physically. Their aim is that this will allow treatment to commence before the damage sets in, thereby giving the patient a better outcome.
After 7 years of research and circa $8 million of research grants, Esya, headquartered out of Chicago, Illinois, has pioneered a patented technology that is a potential game-changer in this space.
How does it work?
Through a simple blood test or skin biopsy, using their patented DNA devices, Esya Labs can measure and monitor disease progression for neurocognitive diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s), and assist Pharmaceutical companies with drug development by quantifying patients’ response to a treatment. This means that they can facilitate personalized medicine by pre-assessing the best-suited treatment for individual patients.
Esya’s technology is architected using DNA filaments as building blocks to create DNA sensors. Their patented nanodevices are essentially filaments of DNA knitted together that hold measuring devices for specific chemicals. We use this to interrogate living cells in culture to understand how the cells function. Using our sensor technology we image key chemicals within the Lysosome, building a toolkit of non-invasive biomarkers to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases at the earliest stage. Esya Labs CEO Venkat explains: “Biomarkers are a set of chemical signatures which allow you to uniquely identify disease and they can also tell you how someone responds to a treatment for the disease. Our biomarkers measure pH and the relative levels of ions such as calcium, chloride, potassium, etc., within the organelles of cells obtained through a blood draw or skin biopsy from the patient. Just like organs of the body perform specific functions for the body, organelles of cells perform specific functions for cells. By monitoring the organelles of a cell, we can tell when they malfunction and what diseases will start manifesting as a result.”
“Our toolkit of biomarkers profile the lysosome, an organelle which numerous studies have linked to neurocognitive impairments. With our patented technology, we hope to diagnose early onset of Alzheimer’s disease and work in partnership with therapeutic companies to facilitate drug developments and eventually personalized healthcare.”
According to Venkat: “Initial trials of Esya’s technology have been completed for lysosomal diseases and Alzheimer’s. Following outstanding results in our pilot, we can already see differences in patients who have manifested Alzheimer’s due to different genetic mutations. We want to expand this dataset to include a larger sample size and to be able to follow patients over time. In conjunction, we’re building partnerships with Alzheimer’s drug discovery companies for utilization of our technology to facilitate therapeutics development.
Esya Labs has an ambitious time frame, hoping that in three years from now, subject to all the regulatory approvals their diagnosis biomarkers will be on the market. Notwithstanding the growing demand for an effective drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease, it’s been nearly two decades since the last novel drug for Alzheimer’s was approved. The only way to definitely diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is after death, through an autopsy of the brain tissue combined with the clinical history. The hope is that Esya’s biomarkers will disrupt a market sorely in need of precision diagnosis and drug discovery.