New scientific research uncovers an early alarm system for high-risk patients
By Sean Tarry
There’s no doubting that scientific study and research is the lifeblood of the medical community, enabling discovery and advancement, fuelling new ideas and practice, enhancing current understanding, and continuously driving a next generation of innovation and breakthrough. That’s an apt description of the impact that the work of scientists and technicians results in on an ordinary day. On a good day, it can mean much more, touching and improving the lives of so many. It’s certainly the case for researchers who recently released the findings of a study that reveals a breakthrough that could forever change the way Parkinson’s disease is detected and treated.
The breakthrough, which was discovered as part of a large-scale clinical study called the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), involves the development of a new technique that enables the identification of a key signature of the disease within the brain and body cells of living people.
Conducted by an international coalition of leading scientists and financially supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the study and its findings, details of which were published on April 12, 2023, within the medical journal The Lancet Neurology, present incredible potential concerning current understanding of Parkinson’s disease among the medical community and could significantly change the impact of symptoms on the patients suffering from the degenerative brain disorder.
Determining high-risk patients
The new technique that’s been developed, called a-synuclein seeding amplification assay, allows for the identification of an abnormal protein that’s known to be a link to the disease within patients, both symptomatic and non-symptomatic. As a result, researchers are proposing that it could provide doctors with a means by which to determine patients who are at high risk of developing the disease long before any of its effects take hold.
Within the published details of the study, researchers reveal that the assay is able to recognize the presence of abnormal alpha-synuclein, also known as Parkinson’s protein, within most patients suffering with Parkinson’s, with an astounding 93 per cent accuracy.
It’s a particularly interesting and, perhaps revolutionary, breakthrough given the fact that alpha-synuclein is a protein that’s commonly found in the human nervous system, in very much the same way as amyloid is in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, which has a tendency to misfold and clump together, causing neuron damage and laying the foundation for the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
The technique developed by researchers leverages a quality of abnormal alpha-synuclein to the advantage of scientists and medical professionals—a quality that triggers normal alpha-synuclein in the vicinity to also misfold and clump. To take advantage, samples of spinal fluid are subjected to a fluorescent contrast agent which lights up, alerting researchers of the formation of alpha-synuclein clumps.
At this stage, normal alpha-synuclein is added to the spinal fluid sample. If the sample contains the presence of abnormal alpha-synuclein, the formation of clumps will be facilitated among the newly-introduced normal alpha-synuclein. And, if this is the case, the fluorescent dye lights up.
The newly developed technique shows remarkable promise in advancing Parkinson’s screening and enhancing the treatment of the disease, representing a massive step forward concerning its related research. It wasn’t until these studies were conducted and findings were revealed that scientists and researchers were able to detect the Parkinson’s biomarker within a live person. Previously, in order to confirm the presence of abnormal alpha-synuclein clumps, the subject would need to be deceased and undergo a post mortem analysis.
Time for hope
Given that Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects the brain, post mortem analysis has to date not yielded any benefit for patients currently living with the disease. There’s been no way in which to get ahead of the symptoms that can include the frequent occurrence of involuntary bodily movements, physical tremors, stiffness, varying difficulty related to balance and co-ordination, behavioural changes, problems sleeping, depression, memory loss, fatigue, and more. That is, until now.
According to the study’s findings, detection of the biomarker in live patients will help medical professionals to diagnose the disease significantly earlier than traditional analysis has historically allowed, potentially enabling intervention and treatment to occur soon enough to save some newly diagnosed patients from some of the fully advanced symptoms associated with the disease.
The breakthrough has obviously been recognized and applauded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. In fact, the actor and long-time Parkinson’s sufferer who was diagnosed with the disease in 1991 at the age of 29 released a statement the day following publication of the study’s findings.
“I’m moved, humbled, and blown away by this breakthrough, which is already transforming research and care, with enormous opportunity to grow from here,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the support of patients, families and researchers who are in it with us as we continue to kick down doors on the path to eradicating Parkinson’s once and for all.”
A statement from the Foundation goes on to further explain that it’s hopeful the work and efforts put in by scientists and researchers will not only help to improve the lives of patients suffering with Parkinson’s, but that it could potentially allow for a greater understanding of the disease and the ways in which it progresses and advances at different biological stages.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation aims to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda, which includes large, open data studies like the PPMI. For more information about its work, visit www.michaeljfox.org.