Research probes possibility of Parkinson’s blood test
Researchers at Lancaster have discovered that alpha-synuclein - a protein that accumulates in parts of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease - can also be detected in the blood. Furthermore, the levels of a particular form of this protein appear to be altered in blood samples from patients with the disease.
Professor David Allsop has now been granted £396,000 by the Medical Research Council to lead a team of researchers from Lancaster University, Manchester University and Royal Preston Hospital to continue to explore the possibility that this protein could act as a marker for Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers will also carry out an extensive £860,000 drug trial funded by industrial collaborator Zyentia. Zyentia is developing new drugs aimed at preventing the degeneration and loss of brain nerve cells in Parkinson’s disease. If successful, such drugs could slow or even stop the progression of the disease.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a common, incurable brain disease, with characteristic symptoms including tremors of the hands, muscle rigidity and slowness of movement. There are around 120,000 sufferers in the UK - one in 500 people - but diagnosis can be difficult. Diagnosis is currently based on taking a detailed clinical history and looking for evidence of the key symptoms.
However, diagnostic errors are common because PD is one of several neurological movement disorders with similar symptoms and there is no existing diagnostic test that can confirm the clinical diagnosis of PD.
It is hoped alpha-synuclein will act as a reliable diagnostic marker, which could lead to the development of the first ever PD blood test enabling earlier and more accurate diagnosis. When coupled with earlier treatment, this would have the potential to transform the lives of those who suffer from this disease. By monitoring fluctuating levels of alpha-synuclein in the blood, doctors might also be able to follow the clinical progression of the disease.
The study has three strands. The first will involve taking blood samples from patients with various neurodegenerative conditions, including PD, and testing them for levels of alpha-synuclein. The second is a longitudinal study taking repeat blood samples over a prolonged period from a relatively small group of patients already diagnosed with PD. The third study is a drug trial involving around 200 patients with PD.
Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Department of Biology, said: “Early diagnosis of PD should lead to more effective treatment. Current drugs for PD are targeted at the ‘downstream’ consequences of the degeneration of brain cells, rather than its prevention. However, many pharmaceutical companies, including our collaborators at Zyentia, are developing new drugs targeted at the degenerative process itself. The combination of early and accurate diagnosis with drugs aimed at the causes of the disease would revolutionise the way we treat Parkinson’s. These new treatments could slow down or even halt the progress of the disease. In view of our ageing population, finding better ways of tackling this debilitating disease is a top priority.”
Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council added “The combination of public funding from the Medical Research Council and support from the pharmaceutical industry highlights how public and private sectors can work together to develop better diagnostic tools and facilitate drug development. These types of collaborations ultimately benefit patients, who will see quicker applications of scientific discoveries.”
●Collaborators on the study are Professor David Allsop and Professor Peter Diggle, Lancaster University, Professor David Mann, Manchester University, Professor Douglas Mitchell, Royal Preston Hospital and Dr Jesus Zurdo at Zyentia.