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Researchers Develop Potential New Blood Test for Parkinson’s Disease

Researchers say the new Mito DNADX test can detect evidence of Parkinson’s in the blood. So how does it work, and what does this mean for the future of Parkinson’s diagnosis and treatment?

 

A team of researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Dr. Laurie Sanders from Duke University has developed a blood test to detect possible evidence of Parkinson’s disease. In addition to aiding in early detection and diagnosis of Parkinson’s, the blood test may help researchers monitor the effects of new drugs and other treatments. 

Below we cover how this new test works, why it’s different from recent research into other Parkinson’s biomarkers, and what this means for the future of Parkinson’s research, diagnosis, and treatment.

How Does the New Mito DNADX Test Detect Parkinson’s?

The new blood test, called Mito DNADX, works by detecting damage to a particular part of the brain’s nerve cells called the mitochondria. Mitochondria are responsible for creating energy for the rest of the cell. In a study conducted by the researchers, blood samples from people with Parkinson’s disease showed higher levels of damage to mitochondria DNA, called mtDNA, than in people without the disease. 

Researchers found that the Mito DNADX test was effective in detecting Parkinson’s both in people with genetic forms of the disease and in people without any known genetic causes. It also worked regardless of whether someone was currently taking Parkinson’s medication. Additionally, the researchers were able to identify a specific level of mtDNA damage that separated the study participants with Parkinson’s from members of the healthy control group.

What Does the New Blood Test Mean for Parkinson’s Diagnosis?

Because mtDNA damage is also found in other diseases, the Mito DNADX test is not yet a single, definitive test for Parkinson’s disease. However, it does represent a major step forward in early detection and may soon give doctors another tool for arriving at an accurate Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Until recently, doctors could only diagnose Parkinson’s disease by observing a specific range of symptoms during a clinical visit, including the movement issues characteristic of the disease. However, in recent years there have been a number of leaps forward in early detection of Parkinson’s, including the development earlier this year of a test to identify the “Parkinson’s protein” in the blood. The Mito DNADX test now offers another way of detecting Parkinson’s before symptoms begin to show. This is helpful because it gives doctors ways to measure and detect two different blood-based biomarkers of Parkinson’s: presence of alpha-synuclein (the “Parkinson’s protein”) and now mtDNA damage.

Why Is Early Parkinson’s Diagnosis and Treatment So Important?

Much like Alzheimer’s disease, by the time most Parkinson’s symptoms begin to show, the disease is already in advanced stages and has done significant damage to the brain. Being able to start treatments for Parkinson’s before symptoms appear would give doctors more time to slow the disease’s impact on the brain and potentially minimize damage to vital brain tissues and nerve cells.

Additionally, earlier detection methods will help drive drug development and research into other types of treatment. Treatments for Parkinson’s are currently limited to drugs that boost dopamine levels—this helps minimize certain movement-based symptoms, but there are no available treatments to slow or halt progression of the disease. 

This is because researchers still can’t identify and target the root causes of Parkinson’s. For example, if researchers could confirm that damage to mitochondria in nerve cells was responsible for some Parkinson’s symptoms, they could start developing and testing drugs specifically to improve the health and functioning of mitochondria in the brain. 

Additionally, many researchers think Parkinson’s may be caused by a spectrum of similar diseases with overlapping symptoms. If this is the case, then being able to successfully diagnose and treat Parkinson’s in the future means learning how to identify and treat some of the specific, unique causes of these related diseases.

The Search for Blood-Based Biomarkers for Alzheimer’s and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases

Researchers are currently working to identify and develop tests for biomarkers for a range of neurodegenerative brain diseases similar to Parkinson’s, including Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia (LBD). 

Last year, one of our Next Generation Research Grant recipients, Suzanne Schindler, MD, PhD, was part of a research team that developed a blood test to detect misfolded beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. Much like the Mito DNADX test, this blood test is not designed to be used as a standalone test for Alzheimer’s, but rather is one of many factors doctors may use to diagnose the disease.

Additionally, our Cure One, Cure Many Award for the early diagnosis of LBD is funding researchers from Mayo Clinic who are working to identify a blood-based biomarker for LBD. Because all brain diseases are interconnected and neurodegenerative diseases often share similar causes, a research breakthrough in one disease area will have a ripple effect on the diagnosis and treatment of many other conditions.

Want to learn about more of the latest breakthroughs in brain disease research? Read about recent advancements in Alzheimer’s research here.

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