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New Test Can Detect Parkinson's Disease Before Symptom

By Peter Urban, AARP, April 2023

New Test Hailed as ‘Game-Changer’ in Parkinson’s Diagnosis. Researchers say it’s able to identify the disease before onset of symptoms.

Scientists have shown they can identify Parkinson’s disease using a biological marker even before physical symptoms arise, such as tremors, balance issues or loss of smell.

The test, known by the acronym αSyn-SAA, was found to have robust sensitivity in detecting synuclein pathology — a buildup of abnormal proteins believed to happen in the early stages of Parkinson’s, according to a study reported in The Lancet Neurology.

Finding a biological test for Parkinson’s is being hailed as a critical tool toward developing treatments and possible cures.

Kenneth Marek, M.D., a scientist at The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative and principal investigator, president and senior scientist at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Disorders, co-led the research. Marek said the test’s validation of this biomarker “launches a new, biological era in Parkinson’s research” that will “transform” clinical care and the search for treatments, preventions and cures. A biomarker is something identifiable and measurable in the body that can predict or diagnose disease activity.

“We will rapidly be in a position to test new therapies in the right populations, target the right therapy to the right patient at the right time, and launch studies of agents with potential to prevent Parkinson’s disease altogether,” Marek said in a statement.

Actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, said in a news release that he is “deeply moved by this breakthrough” and grateful to the researchers, study participants and funders involved in finding biological markers of the disease. The study was funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and a consortium of more than 40 private and philanthropic partners.

“We weren't casting about for fish — we were going after a whale. Now, here we are. Together we are making a cure for Parkinson’s inevitable,” Fox said.

Though a biological marker of Parkinson’s is considered a breakthrough, the invasive nature of sampling spinal fluid needed for the αSyn-SAA test means it won’t likely be used broadly to determine if individuals have the disease.

Neurologists Daniela Berg, M.D., and Christine Klein, M.D., who are based at Germany’s University Hospital of Schleswig-Holstein, were not involved in the study but noted in a commentary linked to the paper that blood tests need to be developed for that to occur. “Although the blood-based method needs to be further elaborated for scalability, αSyn-SAA is a game-changer in Parkinson’s disease diagnostics, research, and treatment trials,” they wrote.

The University of Texas team that developed the αSyn-SAA test has since launched biotech Amprion, which is marketing the assay as the SYNTap Test. It is available for order by physicians for people exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson’s or related disorders such as Lewy body dementia (LBD) or multiple system atrophy (MSA).

The test cannot differentiate between these diseases, but in conjunction with a doctor’s examination, it might help support a specific diagnosis, according to a news release from The Michael J. Fox Foundation.

About 500,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with Parkinson’s disease, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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