Researchers find potential new blood test for detecting Parkinson’s
Tuesday, 5th September 2023

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has announced that researchers at Duke University School of Medicine have found a new test for detecting PD. Called Mito DNADX, this test uses blood to detect damage in the DNA inside of mitochondria, tiny powerhouses in cells that malfunction in Parkinson’s. The researchers showed that people diagnosed with Parkinson’s have measurably more mitochondrial DNA damage than people without the disease.

The study, which used rodents and tissue from diagnosed Parkinson’s patients, suggests DNA damage spotted in blood samples offers a simple way to diagnose the disease early.

The finding was published in Science Translational Medicine, and constitutes another biomarker for Parkinson’s, one that is based on measurements in blood.

What does this discovery mean for people living with Parkinson’s?

Although the potential test needs to be validated in clinical studies, neurodegeneration researcher Mark Cookson of the National Institute on Aging said the finding “adds to our ability to state confidently that an individual has Parkinson’s disease or not”. A blood test based on the findings could also help patients go on existing treatments earlier and boost clinical trials evaluating new therapies, the study’s authors say. 

“Blood-based biomarkers for diagnosing PD and measuring its progression are a critical need in PD research. What’s especially exciting is that the data suggests the mitochondrial changes occur prior to developing symptoms, so the test could be used for early detection,” said Mark Frasier, PhD, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) chief scientific officer. He noted that the test is robust and reliable, but it still has limitations that the researchers are working to address to make it more usable.

How is this different to the previous biomarker discovery?

The breakthrough earlier this year, of the first test that can detect Parkinson’s disease (PD) biology in living people was called the α-synuclein seeding amplification assay (αSyn-SAA). The test uses spinal fluid to reveal a key biomarker of the disease — abnormal alpha-synuclein — in people diagnosed with Parkinson’s as well as people at a high risk of developing it but who have not yet shown symptoms. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research says the new biomarker is similar to αSyn-SAA in diagnosing PD objectively based on biology, but mitochondrial DNA and alpha-synuclein tests measure different aspects of Parkinson’s. Both are expected to play an important role in accurate, early diagnosis that leads to improved care and treatments. Because of the complexity of the PD process, the field expects to need many different biomarkers — it’s not just one and done.

What does this mean for Parkinson’s research and care for people with PD?

This news does not yet broadly change how doctors diagnose or treat Parkinson’s, but allows researchers to plan future studies to validate and improve this blood test, as well as learn more about the role of mitochondrial DNA damage in PD.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation notes, biomarker development continues to be a rapidly evolving (and critical) area of scientific pursuit. The discovery of new biomarkers sits on the leading edge of a new biology-based era in Parkinson’s disease, one that includes earlier detection of the disease and the promise of better therapies for slowing or stopping its progression at any point in the disease process.

The blood biomarker was identified through a related initiative to the  Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) study, funded by Shake It Up here in Australia.

Find out more about this breakthrough here.