Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease

Professor Andrew Hill and Dr Lesley Cheng have been awarded a grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and Shake it Up Australia

More than 80,000 Australians are currently living with Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurological disorder that causes muscle rigidity, tremors and postural instability, along with pain, sensory changes and memory problems.

There’s no easy way to diagnose Parkinson’s. Professor Andrew Hill and Dr Lesley Cheng are tackling this problem by testing the power of extracellular vesicles (EVs), or cell particles, to detect the disease via a simple blood test.

Their research has just been awarded a grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and Shake it Up Australia.

“Specialists believe that therapeutic strategies aimed at limiting neurodegeneration need to be administered before the appearance of PD symptoms,” said Professor Hill. “So it is critical that we develop methods to diagnose the disease early.”

And that is where EVs come in. Hill and Cheng are investigating the possibility that cell particles released from brain tissue can migrate across the blood-brain barrier and into the blood, where biomarkers can be collected to determine a patient’s neurological status. “It is equivalent to a liquid biopsy of the brain,” said Hill.

The research team is using blood samples from The Australian Parkinson’s Disease Registry to determine whether PD biomarkers can be detected in recently-diagnosed patients and in advanced PD patients who have been on medication for more than five years.

“If the biomarkers can help detect the disease there is also the possibility that we can assess the viability of PD drugs,” said Cheng.

“We hope to develop a cost-effective, non-invasive and low-risk diagnostic test to detect PD and monitor its various stages. Ultimately this research is about helping to improve health outcomes for people living with PD.”