Feb. 28 - An inexpensive blood test to diagnose schizophrenia could be made available within two years, offering a groundbreaking alternative to conventional methods that rely on conversations between patients and doctors. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that is difficult to detect, but the blood test promises to identify the disease in 83 percent of cases. Jim Drury reports.
Kirsty Trigg endured 11 years of misery before her schizophrenia was diagnosed. Like many sufferers she would hear voices, making daily life an ordeal. SOUNDBITE (English) KIRSTY TRIGG, SCHIZOPHRENIC PATIENT, SAYING: "Wherever I went I was interrupted, I was hearing things that were sometimes unpleasant, just constant, constant, persistent interruptions and I couldn't think about things without feeling like I was always fighting with my head which was not doing the things I wanted to do." With a diagnosis and medication, Kirsty now has the voices under control, but she says it took a long time to realise she was schizophrenic. She hopes that a simple blood test pioneered by Cambridge University neuroscientist Professor Sabine Bahn will help others avoid such trauma. It's the first clinical diagnostic test of one of the most serious mental illnesses. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR SABINE BAHN, NEUROSCIENTIST AT UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, SAYING: "At the moment the diagnosis of schizophrenia is still based on an interview, it's just asking question (like) 'do you hear voices or do you believe that people are out to get you?' If someone doesn't tell you 'yes' to these answers you would have no idea, there's no brain imaging test or anything to distinguish whether someone has schizophrenia or is just a little bit strange or odd." Bahn's team tested the blood of almost 600 schizophrenia patients, alongside that of healthy volunteers. Having identified 51 proteins associated with mental illnesses, they used an algorithm to establish the probability of mental illness in each of the volunteers. They correctly identified 83 percent of sufferers. Tel Aviv university researcher Dr Noam Shomron, who's working on his own method of clinical diagnoses for schizophrenia, says he's impressed by Bahn's research. SOUNDBITE (English) DR NOAM SHOMRON (PRON: KNOW-AMM SHUMRONN), TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY RESEARCHER, SAYING: "This is a huge leap, because currently there is no molecule that you can measure that, in order to diagnose the disease, and any molecular markers easily accessible would be a huge leap in our understanding." Bahn says the test isn't yet accurate enough to be used on its own, but will help doctors make their diagnosis. Since her own diagnosis Kirsty Trigg has returned to work and lives a normal life. She believes early clinical identification of schizophrenia will help others cope with the stigma surrounding the illness. SOUNDBITE (English) KIRSTY TRIGG, SCHIZOPHRENIC PATIENT, SAYING: "If I'd had that diagnosis I would have been able to equip myself better and not had to have so many hurdles along the way, and I think for some people again if you can accept, encourage people to accept a diagnosis, or at least communicate it to the people around them it's probably life saving." Bahn hopes blood tests will help doctors identify and treat the disease in its early stages. Working with US-based diagnostic company Myriad Geneticx, she hopes to launch the test within 18 months.