RetiSpec, an Israeli company operating out of Toronto and headed by Eliav Shaked, has developed an interesting tool to help with the early detection of Alzheimer via a simple eye test. This has caught the attention of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation Accelerator which invested $500,000 in the Israeli company. Early last week, a biotechnology company named Biogen announced it had registered a new drug with the FDA for treating early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Although in practice this is a development that helps in the early detection of the disease, its potential interface with a drug like Biogen’s could be quite intriguing, as it could help prevent a disease that is currently considered incurable.

Early detection -- saving patients in cost and from radiation

RetiSpec’s solution is currently undergoing a clinical trial in Israel, which began last February. The trial is looking to prove a simple light reflection test from the back of the eye, which will help detect early symptoms of Alzheimer's - a disease that affects millions worldwide (according to Alzheimer's Disease International). To help detect Alzheimer’s biological markers, RetiSpec's technology includes a highly sensitive camera mounted on a standard device used by ophthalmologists on a daily basis. In addition to the camera, RetiSpec has developed software that helps visualize the eye and identify biological markers.

90 people, so far, have taken part in the clinical trial in Israel, with partial findings from 28 tests showing high success rate on RetiSpec’s side, by detecting a difference in the number of beta-amyloids among subjects who did not show clinical signs of Alzheimer's compared against PET scans. The RetiSpec machine learning algorithm is used to classify the information coming from retinal scans into broad categories of possible diagnoses. After this division, an analysis of the scans is performed to find the biological markers indicative of Alzheimer’s.

Those same biological markers are beta-amyloids; insoluble proteins that appear in Alzheimer's patients, among others. RetiSpec’s solution makes it possible to identify whether the subjects have Alzheimer's, years before they begin to show clinical symptoms of the disease.

In tests that RetiSpec performed prior to the current clinical trial, the company’s retinal imaging effectively identified changes associated with high levels of beta-amyloids in the initial stage of the disease, before presenting any symptoms. The company is working with Canada's largest clinical trial center to verify the accuracy and usability of the technology.

Currently, some of the Alzheimer's disease diagnostic methods include scans such as CT (computed tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) - both procedures involve extensive radiation exposure and are not particularly cheap. This is where the RetiSpec solution comes into play, which is supposed to save patients unnecessary exposure to radiation in tests like CT and PET, save them money with diagnostics that cost less, and provide similar results in a shorter time.

RetiSpec’s retinal imaging technology was initially developed by two doctorates from the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota -- Robert Vince and Swati More -- until RetiSpec acquired the technology license and developed the concept into the existing product, and clinical trials we see today. Shaked said RetiSpec took the imaging technology the company had acquired and added to it the software it had developed along with machine learning algorithms to expand its capabilities.

The company's CEO, Eliav Shaked, told Geektime that although the company's offices are in Toronto - its scientific and medical research is done in Israel. Shaked added that some of the key members of the company's scientific and medical staff are based in Israel. "With additional funding from the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, RetiSpec will be expanding its research and development activities at Sheba Hospital," he noted.

According to Shaked, the company has created a way to identify among subjects whether they carry the same biological markers in a way that allows neurologists to intervene earlier and try to delay or prevent cognitive decline or dementia: “In the future we see our technology in every family doctor’s practice. This means that anyone second guessing their cognitive health will be able to get tested easily and reliably and receive help in time - before it’s too late." The company believes that by improving early detection, it will be possible to support finding new drugs that can prevent or at least delay symptoms of a serious illness like Alzheimer’s.