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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Possible Biomarker for Parkinson's Disease

Published October 16, 2013 1:45 PM by Michael Jones

Despite the comparatively small amount of information we know about it, Parkinson’s disease is extremely common. A recent article from Medical News Today noted that the neurological disorder affects over a million people in the US and has developed a reputation as being difficult to diagnose. Up until recently, the disease was only caught by physicians following the appearance of more common and telling symptoms like tremors -- by which point, a substantial number of brain cells would have already been destroyed. Fortunately, researchers have started to have some luck after the discovery a protein in the nervous system that could act as a biomarker.

“A reliable biomarker could help doctors in more accurately diagnosing Parkinson’s disease at an earlier stage and thereby offer patients therapies before the disease has progressed,” said Roy Freeman, MBChB, a professor of neurology Harvard Medical School and the director of the Automatic and Peripheral Nerve Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), in the story.

In a study from BIDMC, scientists tracked levels of the protein, called alpha-synuclein, finding the increased levels of the protein in the skin of Parkinson’s Patients. Although little is currently known about the role of the protein, the BIDMC researchers “have found it is the main component of the abnormal clumps of protein or Lewy bodies, that form inside the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s disease” (sic.). According to the Medical New Today piece, the study consisted of 20 Parkinson’s patients and 14 “controls matched for age and gender” and demonstrated higher concentrations of alpha-synuclein “in the skin nerves supplying the sweat glands and the pilomotor muscles” of patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“Alpha-synuclein deposition within the skin has the potential to provide a safe, assessable and repeatable biomarker,” continued Freeman in the Medical News Today article.

The success of the BIDMC study could be the first step towards the development of preventative measures, eventually leaving clinical laboratories up to the task of performing the assays essential to diagnosis. Although the presence of increased levels of the protein was successfully linked to Parkinson’s and the severity of the disease, the next step is to establish if the protein could be used as a biomarker for those at risk. 

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