Tracking alpha-synuclein protein aggregation using super-resolution microscopy and analysis allows early detection of Parkinson’s disease. (Prof. Uri Ashery and Dr. Dana Bar-On)

Breakthrough in Early Detection and Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease

Israeli researchers devise microscopic technique that can detect earliest symptoms of degenerative disorder

Israeli researchers, in conjunction with peers in Germany and the United Kingdom, have developed a new method to detect the earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease and, therefore, potentially delay its progression. The discovery could enable scientists to treat the neurodegenerative disorder in its infancy and track the evolution of symptoms.

Parkinson’s, which has no known cure, affects nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for producing dopamine. It leads to tremors as well as changes in cognition, speech and gait, among others. An estimated 10 million people suffer from the disease worldwide.

Scientists from Tel Aviv University – in collaboration with researchers at the Max Planck Institute and Cambridge University – were primarily responsible for the discovery of a process that identifies the aggregation of the alpha-synuclein protein, which is a hallmark of the Parkinson’s.

“Until now, you could detect this aggregate usually at the post-mortem stage via brain biopsies or something invasive,” Professor Uri Ashery, co-author of the study and head of Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, told The Media Line. “It is possible to treat the accumulation at early stages but in the past we wouldn’t have known about it, so it’s very important to be able to detect this [as soon as possible].”

Ashery said that scientists used special microscopes to spot changes in the quantity of alpha-synuclein proteins in mice.

“We took samples from mice brains… [and] found that we really can detect the aggregation process and define the bio-markers that represent the development of the disease,” Ashery elaborated. He emphasized that these bio-markers were different from those that are already identifiable in the later stages of Parkinson’s.

Thanks to the new Israeli discovery, researchers were able to study the effects of the drug anle138b, which was created by members of the Max Planck Institute to treat the disorder.

“There was a recovery in motor function [and an increase in] dopamine release, so everything was very positive,” Ashery stressed, adding that the next step is to develop a non-invasive way to implement the breakthrough detection method on humans.

Dr. Dana Bar-On of Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, another co-author of the study, told The Media Line that the project started four years ago and is ongoing.

“The earlier you treat the more effective [it will be] because with Parkinson’s there is a great problem. Symptoms appear when 80 percent of the dopaminergic cells in the patient’s brain are already dead, so it’s too late,” Bar-On explained.

“So it is our belief,” she continued, “that we can use this new method, for example on relatives of Parkinson’s patients. The microscopy enables you to see [the disorder]…from a very early stage because of the resolution. It can already track a single protein.”

Bar-On further noted that researchers at Cambridge University developed a unique transgenic mouse that contracted the disease spontaneously. Its appearance in mice was previously almost always a function of mutations, she said, thus “the new model is more reflective of the situation of Parkinson’s, which is not all genetic.”

It is Bar-On’s hope that in the future doctors will be able to use the Israeli detection method to diagnose early-stage Parkinson’s, possibly by taking biopsies from the skin or the gut.

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