Researchers in Edinburgh have developed a protein test that could diagnose Parkinson’s disease in its early stages.

Using samples of spinal fluid from 38 patients, researchers at The University of Edinburgh looked for a protein molecule called alpha-synuclein. Using an approach called real-time quaking induced conversion, researchers measured the stickiness of the proteins. The molecule is found in healthy brains but it is only when the protein sticks together in lumps that it causes problems, making brain cells die or stopping them performing properly. These sticky clumps, called Lewy bodies, are found in the brains of those with Parkinson’s and those of some dementia patients.

Tests correctly identified 19 out of 20 samples from patients with Parkinson’s and three samples from people who were thought to be at risk of the condition. There were no false positives from 15 control samples from healthy people. Experts say that the test needs to be validated with a larger sample group, but they are optimistic that it could one day help to improve diagnosis of the debilitating disease.

Research leader Dr Alison Green said the technique had already been used successfully to test for Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD), another degenerative brain condition.

“We hope that with further refinement, our approach will help to improve diagnosis for Parkinson’s patients. We are also interested in whether it could be used to identify people with Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia in the early stages of their illness. These people could then be given the opportunity to take part in trials of new medicines that may slow, or stop, the progression of disease.”

Edinburgh is a growing life sciences and medical research hub, and The University of Edinburgh is at the cutting-edge of Parkinson’s research. In addition to Green’s work at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, the university is also home to The Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, a hub for clinical trials into a number of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s. Meanwhile, a team at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) is studying stem cells in order to make advances in the disease. Parkinson’s UK Senior Research Fellow Tilo Kinath leads the lab focused on understanding how alpha-synuclein causes degeneration of neurons in Parkinson’s, with the aim of producing a cell-based therapy for the disease.

Earlier this year, Kinath led a study that showed scent could be used to identify Parkinson’s sufferers, based on the observation they emit a particular musky odour. Identification of the chemical responsible for the smell could enable earlier diagnosis.

Green’s study was funded by the Chief Scientists Office, the Government of Scotland, and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Dr Beckie Port, senior research communications officer at Parkinson’s UK, said there was an urgent need for a simple and accurate test: “Further research is needed to test more samples to see if the results continue to hold true, but this could be a significant development towards a future early diagnostic test for Parkinson’s.”

Featured image courtesy of Dr Tilo Kunath, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine

(Eurekalert and BBC News)