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Emerging Research: Predicting Parkinson's Disease

Dr. Kathleen Shannon cares for a patientThe human body contains trillions of microorganisms, and microbial cells found in and on the body are estimated to outnumber human cells by 10-to-one in healthy adults. Little is known, however, about the ways in which these minute life forms influence health and disease. Research at Rush is working to change that.

A multidisciplinary team including neurologist Kathleen M. Shannon, MD; neuroscientist Jeffrey H. Kordower, PhD; and gastroenterologist Ali Keshavarzian, MD, is working to determine the link between bacteria in the gut and changes in the brain associated with Parkinson’s disease and how we can use this link to predict the disease before it manifests.

This team is conducting studies on a potentially revolutionary new biomarker for Parkinson’s. Alpha-synuclein, a protein found in cells of the brain of patients with Parkinson’s, is considered to be a pathologic hallmark of the disorder. But new research suggests that before it appears in the brain, alpha-synuclein may be present in the gut. Two small-scale studies showed not only that the alpha-synuclein protein may appear in nerve cells in the intestinal walls of patients with early Parkinson’s, but also that it may be found in intestinal tissue as early as two to five years before the onset of motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.

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“These studies suggest it may one day be possible to use colonic tissue biopsy to predict who will develop motor Parkinson’s disease,” Shannon said. “Finding a biological marker for the disease could help us develop more targeted, more effective treatments, and by predicting who will develop the disease, we could intervene before the disabling motor symptoms associated with the disease begin to appear, potentially preventing long-term damage to the nervous system.”

Rush scientists stressed the need to replicate this finding in other populations — normal controls as well in subjects with other neurodegenerative Parkinson-like disorders — and to determine the safest and most reliable biomarker site.

This promising research has been funded by philanthropic support from Larry and Barbara Field, Khurram and Sameera Hussain, Silas and Marcia Keehn, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund.

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