Computer illustration of human nerve cells affected by Lewy bodies (small red spheres inside cytoplasm of neurons) in the brain of a patient with Parkinson's disease.

Research led by the University Medical Center Göttingen and the University College London (UCL) shows a test based on eight proteins found in the blood that can predict Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before any motor symptoms occur.

As reported in Nature Communications, the researchers found that with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) levels of the eight proteins could predict the onset of Parkinson’s before motor symptoms in people with REM sleep behavior disorder with 79% accuracy.

“As new therapies become available to treat Parkinson’s, we need to diagnose patients before they have developed the symptoms. We cannot regrow our brain cells and therefore we need to protect those that we have,” said senior author Kevin Mills, a professor at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, in a press statement.

“At present we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted and we need to start experimental treatments before patients develop symptoms. Therefore, we set out to use state-of-the-art technology to find new and better biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease and develop them into a test that we can translate into any large NHS laboratory. With sufficient funding, we hope that this may be possible within two years.”

The authors tested people with active Parkinson’s disease, those with isolated REM sleep behavior disorder—known to be a risk factor for Parkinson’s—and healthy controls for granulin precursor, mannan-binding-lectin-serine-peptidase-2, endoplasmic-reticulum-chaperone-BiP, prostaglaindin-H2-D-isomaerase, interceullular-adhesionmolecule-1, complement C3, dickkopf-WNT-signaling pathway-inhibitor-3, and plasma-protease-C1-inhibitor. These eight proteins have altered levels in people with Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers found that their machine learning model was able to identify all the patients with active Parkinson’s in a small study based on levels of the eight protein biomarkers. It also correctly identified 79% of people in the study with REM sleep disorder as being pre-symptomatic for Parkinson’s up to seven years before they started to show movement-related disease symptoms.

Early identification of people who will go on to develop Parkinson’s disease could be very helpful, as it would allow earlier treatment and hopefully protection of dopamine producing brain cells.

“By determining eight proteins in the blood, we can identify potential Parkinson’s patients several years in advance. This means that drug therapies could potentially be given at an earlier stage, which could possibly slow down disease progression or even prevent it from occurring,” said co-lead-author Michael Bartl, a researcher at the University Medical Center Göttingen and Paracelsus-Elena-Klinik Kassel.

“We have not only developed a test but can diagnose the disease based on markers that are directly linked to processes such as inflammation and degradation of non-functional proteins. So, these markers represent possible targets for new drug treatments.”

The researchers are now investigating whether the blood test can be simplified to a single drop test and also whether the biomarkers are able to identify people who will go on to develop Parkinson’s even earlier than seven years before they develop symptoms.

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