Landmark Study of Biomarker Data May Enable Better Treatment for Early Onset Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a common form of early-onset dementia, is marked by impairments in behavior, language, and sometimes motor function. Unlike Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), researchers and clinicians have been unable to accurately predict the onset of symptoms for individuals having a familial form of the condition.

While there has been significant growth in the development of therapies targeting the familial forms of frontotemporal lobe dementia (f-FTD), there is an urgent, unmet need to organize clinical trials to test these therapies due to the rarity of eligible of participants with mutations and the lack of experience with testing therapies in pre-symptomatic f-FTD mutation carriers.

Although f-FTD is rare, the genes that cause this disease are also strongly implicated in more common neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, suggesting that identification of effective f-FTD treatments could speed the development of treatments for more common diseases. 

Using Biomarkers to Lower Required Sample Size

In a study publishing in Nature Medicine on September 22, 2022, University of California San Francisco researchers Adam Staffaroni, PhD, and Adam Boxer, MD, PhD, combined and harmonized clinical, neuroimaging, and fluid biomarkers from nearly all familial FTD clinical research participants across North America and Europe. With that data, they developed models of clinical and biomarker dynamics to determine the temporal sequence of biomarker and clinical changes in f-FTD before disease progression begins.

With a sample of over 1,000 members of familial FTD kindreds (with data from the comprehensive NIH-funded ALLFTD study in North America and GENFI study in Europe), they found that brain atrophy and plasma NfL elevations were measurable years prior to the onset of symptoms, paving the way for the use of these biomarkers in clinical trials of therapeutics that could prevent or delay symptoms of f-FTD.

“The models provide a roadmap for development of new biomarkers and clinical endpoints that may improve power to detect treatment effects in pre-symptomatic stages of disease,” said Boxer, endowed professor in memory and aging in the department of neurology at UCSF’s Weill Institute of Neurosciences. “We conducted clinical trial simulations to estimate sample sizes for planning f-FTD clinical trials, and we found that using combinations of clinical and biomarker data as inclusion criteria can reduce the sample size required to detect treatment effects,” said Staffaroni, an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF.

By using multimodal models for f-FTD disease progression that included longitudinal clinical and neuropsychological scores, regional brain volumes, and plasma neurofilament light chain (NfL) in 796 carriers and 412 non-carrier controls, the researchers found that the temporal ordering of clinical and biomarker changes differed in C9orf72, GRN, and MAPT mutation carriers as individuals transitioned from asymptomatic to symptomatic disease.

Accelerating New Treatments

“These results show for the first time that there are distinct changes in certain biomarkers which may help clinicians predict if and when a person who is born with an FTD gene variant will start experiencing the behavioral and cognitive problems associated with the disease,” said John K. Hsiao, MD, program director at the NIH’s National Institute on Aging. “The results could speed the development of new treatments for this devastating disorder.”

Using these models, they were able to estimate clinical trial enrollment criteria and sample sizes for clinical trials to prevent disease in asymptomatic mutation carriers or to treat disease in people who are already mildly affected 

In prevention-trial simulations employing model-based patient selection, atrophy and NfL were the best study endpoints, whereas clinical measures were potential endpoints in early-symptomatic trials.   

“These disease progression models will facilitate the planning of f-FTD clinical trials,” said Boxer. “We believe our study highlights the importance of identifying eligible trial participants outside of Europe and North America to maximize our ability to identify new effective therapies.”

To address the need for f-FTD clinical research participants, a global collaboration called the FTD Prevention Initiative has been led by Boxer and Professor Jonathan Rohrer at University College London to bring together genetic FTD cohorts from across Europe, North America, South America, Australasia and Asia.

Authors: Adam M. Staffaroni PhD, Melanie Quintana PhD, Barbara Wendelberger PhD, Hilary W. Heuer PhD, Lucy L. Russell PhD, Yann Cobigo PhD, Amy Wolf MS, Sheng-Yang Matt Goh MS, Leonard Petrucelli PhD, Tania F. Gendron PhD, Carolin Heller BSc, Annie L. Clark MS, Jack Carson Taylor MS, Amy Wise BA, Elise Ong BS, Leah Forsberg PhD, Danielle Brushaber BS, Julio C. Rojas MD PhD, Lawren VandeVrede MD PhD, Peter Ljubenkov MD, Joel Kramer PsyD, Kaitlin B. Casaletto PhD, Brian Appleby MD, Yvette Bordelon MD PhD, Hugo Botha MD, Bradford C. Dickerson MD, Kimiko Domoto-Reilly MD, Julie A. Fields PhD, Tatiana Foroud PhD, Ralitza Gavrilova MD, Daniel Geschwind MD PhD, Nupur Ghoshal MD PhD, Jill Goldman MS MPhil, Jonathon Graff-Radford MD, Neill Graff-Radford MD, Murray Grossman MD EdD, Matthew GH Hall MS, Ging-Yuek Hsiung MD MHSc, Edward D. Huey MD, David Irwin MD, David T. Jones MD, Kejal Kantarci MD, Daniel Kaufer MD, David Knopman MD, Walter Kremers PhD, Argentina Lario Lago PhD, Maria I. Lapid MD, Irene Litvan MD, Diane Lucente MS, Ian R. Mackenzie MD, Mario F. Mendez MD PhD, Carly Mester BA, Bruce L. Miller MD, Chiadi U. Onyike MD, Rosa Rademakers PhD, Vijay K. Ramanan MD PhD, Eliana Marisa Ramos PhD, Meghana Rao MPH, Katya Rascovsky PhD, Katherine P. Rankin PhD, Erik D. Roberson MD PhD, Rodolfo Savica MD PhD, M. Carmela Tartaglia MD, Sandra Weintraub PhD, Bonnie Wong PhD, David M Cash PhD, Arabella Bouzigues MSc, Imogen J Swift MSc, Georgia Peakman MSc, Martina Bocchetta PhD, Emily G. Todd MRes, Rhian S. Convery MSc, James B. Rowe PhD, Barbara Borroni MD, Daniela Galimberti PhD, Pietro Tiraboschi MD, Mario Masellis MD PhD, Elizabeth Finger MD, John C. van Swieten MD PhD, Harro Seelaar MD PhD, Lize C. Jiskoot PhD, Sandro Sorbi MD PhD, Chris R. Butler PhD, Caroline Graff PhD RN, Alexander Gerhard MD, Tobias Langheinrich MD, Robert Laforce MD PhD, Raquel Sanchez-Valle MD PhD, Alexandre de Mendonça MD PhD, Fermin Moreno MD, Matthis Synofzik MD, Rik Vandenberghe MD, Simon Ducharme MD, Isabelle Le Ber MD PhD, Johannes Levin MD, Adrian Danek MD, Markus Otto MD, Florence Pasquier MD PhD, Isabel Santana MD PhD, John Kornak PhD, Bradley F. Boeve MD, Howard J. Rosen MD, Jonathan D. Rohrer FRCP PhD, Adam. L. Boxer MD PhD and Frontotemporal Dementia Prevention 35 Initiative (FPI) Investigators*

Funding: Data collection and dissemination of the data presented in this manuscript was supported by the ALLFTD Consortium (U19: AG063911, funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke) and the former ARTFL & LEFFTDS Consortia (ARTFL: U54 NS092089, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; LEFFTDS: U01 AG045390, funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke).

This work is also supported by the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (including the FTD Biomarkers Initiative), the Bluefield Project to Cure FTD, Larry L. Hillblom Foundation [2018-A-025-FEL (AMS)], the National Institutes of Health [AG038791 (ALB), AG032306 (HJR), AG016976 (WAK), AG062677 (RCP), AG019724 (BLM), AG058233 559 (SEL), AG072122 (WAK), P30 AG062422 (BLM), K12 HD001459 (NG), K23AG061253 (AMS), AG062422 (RCP), K24AG045333 (HJR)], and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation. Samples from the National Centralized Repository for Alzheimer Disease and Related Dementias (NCRAD), which receives government support under a cooperative agreement grant [U24 AG021886 (TF)] awarded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), were used in this study.

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