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La Jolla Biotech’s Blood Test Could Help Doctors Diagnose Depression

Evening Edition

Above: Doctors use blood tests to check patients for a wide variety of diseases, including HIV, cancer and diabetes. A San Diego-based company has developed what it calls the first reliable blood test for depression. KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us the test is being marketed as a tool to help doctors diagnose this widespread disorder.

Aired 1/8/14 on KPBS News.

A San Diego-based neurodiagnostic company has developed what it calls the first reliable blood test for depression.

Michelle Macdonald spent years climbing up the corporate ladder at a major telecom company.

These days, she works as a program coordinator at the San Diego chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

It’s a much better fit.

Macdonald suffers from major depression. She spent years not knowing what was wrong.

“It felt like being imprisoned in Jell-O, sometimes quicksand, just being unable to really function as a normal human being,” Macdonald recalled.

When she was a kid, Macdonald's mother made a number of suicide attempts.

“Even though I knew that mental illness ran in the family, I really didn’t identify it in myself until I was in my first year in college, and then really didn’t identify and get treated and learn about recovery until about five years ago," Macdonald explained.

Nearly 1 in 10 Americans suffers from depression. The disease affects more than 350 million people worldwide. It’s one of the leading causes of disability. Yet, because of stigma, many people don’t acknowledge they’re depressed and don’t seek treatment.

San Diego-based Ridge Diagnostics has come up with a blood test that could make it easier to diagnose and ultimately treat depression.

It’s called MDDScore.

Ridge Diagnostics CEO Lonna Williams said the test measures nine different biomarkers that are associated with depression.

“And these biomarkers are not genetics," Williams explained. "They’re hormones, proteins and some enzymes that have been shown to predictably change when a patient is suffering from major depressive disorder.”

Williams says when the brain triggers depression, the body responds. The blood test measures these physiological changes. The patient receives a detailed list and an overall score, from one to nine.

“If you have a five or greater, five to nine, then the likelihood that you’re suffering from major depressive disorder is greater than 90 percent, compared to structured, rigorous interview tools," Williams said. "If your score is one to four, there’s a 95 percent likelihood that your are not suffering from major depressive disorder.”

A small study conducted at three hospitals suggests the test can effectively differentiate between depressed and non-depressed patients.

The study concluded further research is needed to confirm the performance of the test across various age and ethnic groups, and in different clinical settings.

Ridge Diagnostics said its test is not meant to replace a doctor’s judgment. Rather, it’s intended to be an additional tool that doctors can use to help them confirm a diagnosis.

San Diego psychiatrist Michael Lardon has been ordering the test for some of his patients. He said it provides an objective measurement of depression that can be very therapeutic.

“The real usefulness is I can have the individual not only look and hear my opinion, but it can be confirmed by this objective test," Lardon explained. "And that makes people really buy into treatment, and if they don’t buy into treatment, they don’t get better.”

Lardon points out that psychiatrists aren’t the only doctors who can order this test.

“The majority of psychiatric medicines are not prescribed by psychiatrists," Lardon said. "They’re prescribed by family practice doctors, who don’t have the same expertise, they don’t have the same training. And in this group, the largest group that prescribes psychotropics, I think it’s very useful.”

The MDDScore test costs about $800. Officials at Ridge Diagnostics say most insurance plans cover it.

Michelle Macdonald hopes the test could help reduce some of the stigma of depression. She says people suffering from the disorder need to realize it’s a chronic condition with measurable characteristics — just like diabetes, or heart disease.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to hide, you’re not a leper," Macdonald said. "You’re a person that has a disease of the brain, and it needs pharmaceutical treatment.”

Comments

Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 8, 2014 at 10:31 a.m. ― 7 months, 3 weeks ago

why not just ask someone if they feel depressed?

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Avatar for user 'tim1680'

tim1680 | January 8, 2014 at 11:50 a.m. ― 7 months, 3 weeks ago

This is very interesting. I'm a family physician. I couldn't see myself ever prescribing medications to a patient who I didn't thinik was depressed, regardless of what the test shows. Nor would I withhold treatment from someone with a negative test whom I diagnosed with depression. Where I see this test being most useful is for clearly depressed patients who are reluctant to start treatment. If you can show a patient some objective evidence of their illness, they may be more accepting of it.

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