In the U.S. alone, nearly a million people are now living with Parkinson’s disease, and 96% of them are over the age of 50, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. About 60,000 people are newly diagnosed each year nationwide. During April, which is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, we highlight a few recent studies that show how continuous advancements are being made in the diagnosis and management of this debilitating condition, which affects so many older Americans.
• • •
It may soon be possible to diagnose Parkinson’s disease based on a simple and painless skin swab. British scientists have developed a technique that analyzes compounds in sebum – the oily substance that coats and protects the skin – which may be abnormal in those with the disease, even in early stages.
In a study of about 500 people both with and without Parkinson’s disease whose sebum was tested, 10 chemical compounds were identified which are present at higher or lower than normal amounts in people with the disease. The testing was able to positively identify the presence of Parkinson’s with 85% accuracy.
The scientists said skin swab testing could be useful in the future for not only in diagnosing Parkinson’s, but also in monitoring its progression and as an important tool in future clinical trials.
• • •
A scalpel-free brain surgery alternative may benefit people whose Parkinson’s disease symptoms more severely impact one side of the body, which is known as asymmetrical Parkinson’s. The technology uses focused ultrasound to direct powerful sound waves inside a particular region of the brain – similar to how a magnifying glass focuses light – allowing doctors to interrupt a patient’s faulty brain circuits or destroy unwanted tissue.
Doctors from the University of Virginia recently used this technique on a small group of volunteers with Parkinson’s, whose average age was 57, in a randomized study. They found that symptoms for those who received the focused ultrasound treatment were improved by about 20% compared to those who had a “sham” procedure. After additional testing, this technique could offer a new treatment option for patients whose symptoms can’t be controlled with medications, as well as those who cannot have or do not want to risk traditional brain surgery.
• • •
Scientists have now cultivated tomatoes enriched with a critical Parkinson’s disease drug, creating what could become a new and affordable source of an essential medicine for millions around the world.
Levodopa, commonly called L-DOPA, has been the gold standard therapy for Parkinson’s since the late 1960s. L-DOPA helps to compensate for a depleted supply of a neurochemical called dopamine in the brains of patients.
L-DOPA is produced from tyrosine, an amino acid found in many foods. An international research team was able to genetically modify tomato plants, encoding an enzyme that uses tyrosine to build L-DOPA molecules. This raised the level of L-DOPA found in the tomatoes’ fruit to about 150mg of L-DOPA per kilogram.
Growing tomatoes as a natural source of L-DOPA offers a solution to many people with Parkinson’s, especially in developing countries, who cannot afford the daily cost of the medicine in its synthetic form. It also may benefit Parkinson’s patients everywhere who suffer from negative side effects, including nausea and behavioral complications, of chemically synthesized forms of L-DOPA.