Students want to combat Alzheimer’s with light

Entrepreneurship Innovation and product development Health technology Health and diseases
A newly developed light seeks to reduce degradation of the brain in patents with Alzheimer’s disease.  

The technology has been approved, a company has been founded, and clinical trials await.

A dramatic breakthrough in the treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s may be underway at DTU.

For 18 months, a group of students affiliated with DTU Fotonik have been working on developing a new form of light therapy to reduce degradation of the brain in people with Alzheimer’s. The therapy consists of a specific composition of light, and the group hopes and expects that the light can be used in a simple therapy lamp or bulb to provide an unprecedented positive effect on patients’ memory and cognitive functions.

The technology behind the product has been tested at Zealand University Hospital in Roskilde, Denmark. The coming years will be used to validate the technology and obtain the necessary medical approvals. If successful, the technology will be a huge step forward and the first non-invasive treatment to patients with Alzheimer’s. With the help of the new light therapy, patients could look forward to a treatment which can potentially reduce the progression of plaque—a protein waste in the brain, which prevents the neurons in communicating, thereby causing brain degradation.

Collaboration with American universities

We turn back the clock to spring 2017. Professor Jes Broeng, DTU Fotonik and Centre Director of DTU Entrepreneurship was at UC Berkeley in California with his colleague Professor Paul Michael Petersen. They came into contact with Professor Lance Kriegsfeld and Mai Nguyen, PhD student in neuroscience, who drew their attention to a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Photo: Joachim Rode

Here, researchers had published promising results using light therapy to treat Alzheimer’s. Experiments on mice showed that it is possible to reduce the development of Alzheimer’s disease by exposing the mice to an hour’s daily light therapy at precisely at 40 Hz for three weeks. After the three weeks, large areas of the mice’s brains had regenerated.

At this time, however, the drawback of the treatment was—and is—that the light is a rapidly flashing stroboscopic light which one can only assume is extremely unpleasant for mice and humans alike.

A few months later, and now back at DTU, Broeng was contacted by MSc Eng student Marcus Schultz Carstensen from DTU Fotonik, who was looking for an interesting project for his final MSc project. The idea of an improved white light with no visible flashing to combat Alzheimer’s was discussed.

“I was immediately interested. Throughout my studies, I have worked with theoretical physics and optics. I wanted my MSc project to go beyond technology and theory and focus on something that could potentially make a difference for others and help to solve a real problem. This project ticked all the boxes,” says Marcus Schultz Carstensen when we visit him in the laboratory at DTU Fotonik, which over the past year had been his working ‘home base’.

Marcus teamed up with fellow student Henrik Enggaard Hansen. Three weeks later, the first draft of a prototype was ready. The prototype documented that they had the principles for creating a new form of white light, which they call ‘masked white light’.

“In several areas, the starting point drew on existing knowledge. We know that the eye contains photoreceptors, and that light—in line with other stimuli such as sound and touch—can affect the brain. And we knew from research at MIT that the light needed to be 40 Hz. We therefore had to exploit the structure of the eye and its sensitivity to different types of light. We experimented with the right composition of light, so that a lamp with an ordinary shade could have the same effect without causing irritating to the eyes and head,” he explains.

Diagnosis with scanner

A significant academic challenge was validating the lighting technology. This is particularly difficult as there is still no watertight method for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease other than dissecting the brain—as in the case of mouse experiments at MIT—and observing indicator substances through a microscope. The solution was an fMRI scanner which makes it possible to harmlessly analyse the brain during exposure to light.

“It was complicated because the scanner is magnetic and interferes with any electronic equipment—including our lamp. We built a ‘light-mask’ and connected a fibre-optic cable which fed out of the scanner room and into our lamp. This enabled us to have our light inside the scanner without any electronics in the immediate vicinity,” he explains.

The work of improving the prototype continued in the autumn of 2017 on a course under the auspices of Open Entrepreneurship programme, which focuses on entrepreneurship. It was here that Jakob Hildebrandt and several experienced entrepreneurs became involved. The group of students was expanded to include new participants, all of whom brought different competences to the ongoing development process. In addition to Marcus, Gustavo Feijõo and Nicolai Hagelund were involved. The group received EUR 67,000 (DKK 500,000) from DTU’s Proof of Concept Fund and were thus able to finance—among other things—materials for further prototype development and external business development consultancy.

The project involves collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and Rigshospitalet. It draws on knowledge from—among other things—electronics, optics, software, management, and clinical research. However, the work is based primarily on two areas: photonics and brain science. And an important element in relation to the latter has been the cooperation with UC Berkeley and Mai Nguyen.

Motivated by the project’s potential impact on millions of patients and their relatives, Mai Nguyen has been linked to the development process at DTU from the very outset. At DTU she met students and researchers who share her passion and commitment to investing countless hours in the realization of the project.

“Ahead of us is the next step, which is to initiate the first phase of the clinical clues in order to determine the effect of our lighting on patients. The ultimate goal is to integrate the light in ordinary homes and other surroundings. Even a small effect can have enormous benefit in relation to both prevention and treatment for the growing numbers of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

Here in 2018, Marcus and Nicolai Hagelund have completed their MSc project and further tested and refined the design. Together with seven other parties they have formed the company OptoCeutics.