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USF joins study on biological ties to Parkinsons

USF Health has joined 15 other U.S. entities, ranging from hospitals to universities, to try to identify the biological markers of Parkinson’s disease.

The Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) is a study in which USF will recruit 20 Parkinson’s patients and 10 control subjects to be studied over a period of five years.

Robert Hauser, director of the USF Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center said working with several entities at once is more efficient than gathering the research alone.

“If we tracked 400 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients on our own it would take 32 years,” Hauser said.

Holly Delgado, site coordinator, said four patients are enrolled in the study so far, and they are currently screening five others. In addition, control subjects must be recruited.

“In terms of healthy controls, basically they can’t have any other neurologic problems, they can’t have like a first-degree family member with Parkinson’s,” Delgado said.

Hauser underlined the importance of having a comparison group.

“We have to compare their tests – their blood tests, urine tests – to people who don’t have Parkinson’s disease,” he said.

The study is being funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). It is currently the sole philanthropic group funding the $40 million project.

“The Michael J. Fox Foundation has done a great job getting donations for research and then allocating those funds to research,” Hauser said. “They have a scientific committee that tries to identify top priorities that help them come to decisions about what kind of studies, or what studies in particular, to fund.”

Hauser said the study will not only provide treatment to Parkinson’s patients, but also also aid in the overarching research of the disease.

“A lot of our (prior) work has been testing medications, but this will hopefully provide us a new tool to allow us to better test those medications,” he said. “The goal is to access the progression of the disease using biomarkers accurately and in a relatively short time frame compared to what we do now, which is watch patients over a long time.”

Biomarkers can be a fluid, another substance or a characteristic of the body and can be found within chemicals in the blood, urine or spinal fluid. While a number of genes have been connected to Parkinson’s disease, these are not considered biomarkers.

“We do know right now mutations of 10 different genes that can cause Parkinson’s disease, and it only accounts for about 8 percent of what’s Parkinson’s disease,” Hauser said. “So presumably there are either other mutations or combinations of changes in genes or interactions between the environment and genes, but so far they only account for a small portion of people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Hauser said the medications currently available are not based on biomarkers.

“They’re not based on biomarkers and they don’t slow the disease process, they just treat the symptoms,” he said. “(Parkinson’s patients) are losing neurons in the brain that make dopamine, and so we give them dopamine-like drugs, and the symptoms, the slowness, that stiffness, the tremor improves for a while, but we’re just treating the symptoms.”

He said these medications do not prevent the disease from getting worse over time. Eventually the disease will progress to affect the whole brain. Symptoms such as loss of balance and loss of cognition do not respond to dopamine. While the project is only in its early stages, Hauser said he is looking forward to the benefits that new equipment will bring.

“We now have approval by (the Food and Drug Administration) to conduct dopamine brain scans, called DaT scans,” he said. “So that’s going to be available here staring March 1. Other studies have shown that, that looks to be a good imaging test for loss of dopamine function in the brain.”

He said it will be used for diagnosis. He also said that as part of the study they will watch DaT scan results over time and watch how it changes to see how closely it reflects what happens to patients.

Delgado said they are still looking for control subjects. If any healthy persons over the age of 30 want to be involved in the program, they can contact the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center.