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Researchers say a new blood test can pick up early indicators of Parkinson’s disease. Alvaro Lavin/Stocksy
  • Duke University researchers said DNA damage in blood cells can serve as an early warning of Parkinson’s disease.
  • The scientists also found that genetic biomarkers could be used to monitor the effectiveness of Parkinson’s therapies.
  • A simple blood test based on the research could aid in detection and treatment of the disease as well as improve future research.

The identification of a genetic biomarker for Parkinson’s disease raises the possibility that a blood test could be developed to identify the neurological disorder before symptoms appear.

In a study published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology to detect mitochondrial DNA damage in blood cells typically associated with Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers reported that the test was able to detect the damage both in people with genetic mutation LRRK2, a known risk factor for Parkinson’s, and those who did not have the mutation.

The researchers said the findings could provide a pathway to developing a blood test for early detection of the disease.

Duke researchers also found that the PCR-based test could help measure the effectiveness of certain Parkinson’s treatments, such as LRRK2 inhibitors.

“Currently, Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed largely based on clinical symptoms after significant neurological damage has already occurred,” said Laurie Sanders, PhD, a senior study author and an associate professor in the Duke School of Medicine’s departments of neurology and pathology and member of the Duke Center for Neurodegeneration and Neurotherapeutics, in a press statement. “A simple blood test would allow us to diagnose the disease earlier and start therapies sooner.”

“Additionally, a clear-cut diagnosis would accurately identify patients who could participate in drug studies, leading to the development of better treatments and potentially even cures,” she added. “Our hope is that this assay could not only diagnose Parkinson’s disease, but also identify drugs that reverse or halt mitochondrial DNA damage and the disease process.”

The blood test also could improve diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which experts say is frequently misdiagnosed because symptoms are often shared with other neurological disorders.

A blood test that could detect Parkinson’s early also could have psychological benefits, said Dr. Howard Pratt, a psychiatrist and the medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc.

“The earlier the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, the better the outcome and the better quality of life that can be achieved,” he told Medical News Today. “The power of an early diagnosis has impacts that go beyond science and even beyond the person afflicted, extending to their family and loved ones, all of whom will be better positioned to address the long-term implications of the disease and to maximize the efficacy of available treatments.”

“A simple blood-based biomarker for diagnosis and for tracking of Parkinson’s disease would be a major advance, especially for low-income countries,” Dr. Michael S. Okun, a medical advisor for the Parkinson’s Foundation and the director of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at University of Florida Health, told Medical News Today.

Okun said that the finding that the blood test could be used both to detect the disease and monitor treatment effectiveness was “very novel.”

However, he added that “this blood test has a long way to go and will need to be compared to other approaches, validated in larger studies and it will need to show it can differentiate samples from other Parkinsonian syndromes if it is to one day be used as a diagnostic test.”