General Electric Co. and Eli Lilly and Co. announced Tuesday they are collaborating on a research project intended to accelerate the discovery and development of a treatment for Alzheimer's disease (search).

The agreement marks GE's first major partnership with a pharmaceutical company. GE is trying to be a leader in diagnosing diseases early at the molecular level.

"One of the toughest challenges with Alzheimer's disease has been to develop a molecular diagnostic to determine objectively if someone has the disease prior to observed mental impairment," said Scott Donnelly, senior vice president of GE Global Research. "We are confident that this collaboration will result in a definitive molecular diagnostic for this disease that has been long overdue in the medical community."

Alzheimer's is a brain degeneration disease that afflicts about 4.5 million Americans. It eventually robs victims of memory and the ability to communicate and care for themselves.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's before memory damage has the potential to transform treatment of the disease. Doctors could prescribe a treatment for those with elevated levels of the protein in the brain to slow or stop the progression of the disease, Lilly officials said.

Fairfield-based GE will develop contrasting agents, which are injected into patients to help Lilly scientists evaluate therapies to treat Alzheimer's. GE will have access to Lilly's extensive molecular libraries to search for compounds that would be promising for use in targeted diagnostic imaging agents for Alzheimer's disease.

Lilly, based in Indianapolis, will then have access to any diagnostic agents developed by GE to use from the early research phase through clinical trials.

Scientists at both companies can accelerate their progress by sharing molecular libraries, research findings and other resources, GE officials said.

GE's health care business is developing targeted molecular diagnostics for a variety of neurological diseases, including Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. GE is planning to expand its activities with pharmaceutical partners to research other diseases.

Shares of GE traded Tuesday afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange at $35.92, down 8 cents. The stock has traded between $29.55 and $37.75 over the past year.

Shares of Eli Lilly traded on the New York Stock Exchange at $59.30, up 30 cents. The stock has traded between $50.34 and $76.95 over the past year.