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Johnson & Johnson’s (NYSE:JNJ) Janssen Pharmaceutica and GE Healthcare said they are collaborating to develop new means of detecting Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms manifest themselves.

The two companies are seeking to capitalize on complementary strengths in developing new imaging and diagnostic capability to identify combinations of biomarkers that are unique to Alzheimer’s and can be detected through non-invasive or minimally invasive means. The hope is such an approach will lead to earlier interventions that can delay or diminish the consequences of the disease.

“The underlying pathologies associated with Alzheimer's disease, such as the formation of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the tissues of the brain, can precede the onset of memory loss and other clinical symptoms by decades,” says Husseini Manji, global therapeutic area head of neuroscience research & development at Johnson & Johnson.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, deaths attributed to the disease have increased by more than 46 percent between 2000 and 2006. Today, in the United States alone, 5.3 million people have Alzheimer's disease, and the annual cost of the disease is $172 billion. That figure is expected to balloon worldwide in the coming decades.

The disease, already the sixth leading cause of death, is expected to rise as the Baby Boom generation ages. The Alzheimer’s Association says by 2050, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years could save $447 billion annually.

Though new drugs will be needed to combat the disease, early detection could play a critical role in combating both the human and economic costs of the disease.

Source: J&J, GE Enter Alzheimer’s Early Detection Collaboration