The beginning symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) often go unnoticed, making it hard for clinicians to diagnose the disease in its early stages. According to Arizona State University professor Michael Sierks, by the time symptoms have developed enough for diagnosis, patients have already lost between 60 and 80 percent of their dopaminergic neurons.
Those diagnosed with PD can often live for a long time after, but because PD is a neurological disorder characterized by slow degeneration of physical and mental functions that are only present after it has progressed beyond the point where medical intervention can stop it, the quality of their life is greatly impacted.
The disease gradually breaks down dopaminergic neurons, or dopamine nerve cells, leading to motor issues like tremors, slowness of movement, etc., and non-motor issues such as blood pressure drops and loss of their sense of smell.
“The biggest thing is a loss of independence. So as Parkinson’s starts to progress, the tremors, the loss of muscle movement, and other factors. You lose the ability to walk, to drive, to be able to do things [like] feed yourself, sleep well. It’s just some really devastating consequences as far as quality of life,” Sierks said.
In hopes to help prevent the severity of the damage before diagnosis, Sierks has teamed up with Dr. Charles Adler at the Mayo Clinic to identify blood-based biomarkers to diagnose early-stage PD.
Their hopes are that identifying a biomarker would allow clinicians to diagnose PD through blood-tests, lessening the damage of dopamine nerve cells.
According to Sierks, “by the time it’s diagnosed, clinically, there is an incredible amount of damage that has already taken place and it’s really hard to bring that person back to normal… if we can get a diagnostic [that] can identify patient’s presymptomatic, early stages, we can then stop progression when there’s still a fair amount of dopaminergic activity left and the patient can go on and live a normal life.”
“Research drives everything we do for our patients. Having Mayo Clinic and ASU underwrite these type of collaborations supports one of our most important research missions – improving the care and quality of life of our patients,” Dr. Adler told ASU Now.
The cause of the disease is still unclear, but PD is the second most diagnosed neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s affects nearly 1 million people in U.S. and according to the Parkinson’s Foundation, 18 thousand Arizonans have PD.
According to ASU Now, for a biomarker to determine whether an individual will get PD, they must find one that is “sensitive to PD, meaning every or almost all PD patients have it,” as well as, specific only to PD but Sierks believes the research is heading towards finding a biomarker.
“I’m very hopeful. With the results we’ve gotten, everything looks really promising that we can have a really early diagnostic.”
Sierks says that the next step is getting funding to test their biomarkers on longitudinal blood samples of PD patients, meaning they would take blood samples from patients throughout the years, starting pre-symptomatically and ending with late-stage Parkinson’s, to see how biomarkers change throughout the stages, allowing clinicians to determine the right treatment for each patient.