Early detection of Parkinson's could help doctors decide on treatment options or improve disease management. But often people get a neurological examination after symptoms appear, when vital brain cells have already been destroyed. Now a game-changing blood test is being developed to give doctors a reliable method to detect the disease earlier through clinical biomarkers.

The test is being developed at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, to reveal abnormal metabolism of blood cells in people with Parkinson's. So far it has been trialed on a total of 38 people, 29 with Parkinson's and nine in a control group. Professor of Microbiology Paul Fisher at La Trobe has reported that the tests have proven very reliable.

The development of the blood test is the culmination of recent discoveries on the mechanisms of the disease. Scientists believe that neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's involve malfunction of cell mitochondria, the cells' energy factories. About 10 years ago, Fisher and his lab team discovered that symptoms in conditions linked to defective mitochondria could be caused by an "always on" alarm system in the cells.

The discovery revealed that these diseases were connected to a signalling disorder and not an energy insufficiency, as previously thought. Fisher and his team demonstrated this process and showed that in the case of Parkinson's, the patient's cells become hyperactive, leading to an increase of the production of toxic oxygen by-products. Over time, these damage vital cells in the brain.

The researchers say that the development of the blood test may allow doctors to reliably detect the abnormal metabolism of blood cells in people suffering from Parkinson's, allowing treatment options to be provided much earlier. It could also lead to detection tools for other neuro-degenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's.

La Trobe has now received $640,000 in funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and its funding partner, Shake It Up Australia Foundation, to extend the study. Upon completion of the next stage in development, the study sample will include a total of 100 subjects, 70 with Parkinson's and a control group of 30.

Further study of the differences in blood cells from Parkinson's patients and healthy control groups could result in a better understanding of the disease's underlying mechanisms.

The team estimates that the diagnostic blood test could be available within the next five years if additional funding to speed up its development is secured.

Source: La Trobe