For the 10 million people living with Parkinson’s disease around the world, diagnosis might have come too late. Today, a patient can only be diagnosed with the degenerative disease after receiving a a number of tests and ruling out all the other possible diseases, at which point many brain cells have already been lost. If the disease were diagnosed earlier, doctors might be able to intervene and slow the progression of the disease. Now researchers from La Trobe University in Australia have developed a diagnostic blood test for Parkinson’s, according to a press release. Thanks to a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the test might make its way to clinical use in the next five years. If it were to do so, it would be the world’s first blood test for Parkinson’s.
The blood test is based on a discovery that the researchers made about a decade ago, that over-active mitochondria are responsible for the buildup of toxic products responsible for the cell damage inherent to Parkinson’s. Those mitochondria flip a chemical switch that tells them to work harder, and researchers can now pick up on that signal to identify Parkinson’s.
To assess the reliability of the test, the researchers tried it on 38 subjects, 29 with Parkinson’s and nine healthy subjects. They found the test to be very accurate and reliable (a study with the specific of their experiment is currently under peer review). In the near future they plan to try their test on a larger group of subjects.
The test will be the most useful if it can distinguish Parkinson’s from other types of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Multiple Sclerosis, as The Guardian points out. But researchers aren’t yet sure it can do that—they know that mitochondria are hyperactive in Parkinson’s patients, but they’re not yet sure the same isn’t true for other diseases.
There’s no question that detecting Parkinson’s earlier is better for patients in the long run—they can start taking medication earlier and reduce the impact of the worsening symptoms on their lives. However, there are currently no treatments that can slow the progression of the disease. If scientists are able to diagnose the disease earlier, before symptoms are too severe, they might be able to develop new treatments for Parkinson’s.