Blood Test for Parkinson's Disease

Travis Cook

Travis Cook in the lab. Photo: Elizabeth Sharpe

Travis Cook is on a fishing expedition, but a different one from his winters of ice-fishing home in Minnesota. With Professor Jing Zhang (Department of Pathology) and Fred Farin (director of the Functional Genomics Laboratory), the fourth-year Toxicology PhD student is screening donated plasma from patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and from welders who have a motor coordination disorder called parkinsonism with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s.

Cook’s research will help find biological markers that provide doctors with an objective tool to evaluate patients and that may indicate whether treatment is effective.

The first challenge is to locate biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease. No easy task. The disease originates in the brain, and definitive diagnosis can only be made post-mortem. Therefore, researchers must find a “surrogate” marker that accurately represents what is happening in the brain. Second, “Parkinson’s disease is progressive,” Cook explains, meaning it has evolving biomarkers. He is fishing for a match in the plasma proteome, a complicated soup containing thousands of proteins. Amidst all these potential targets, Cook must identify the right fingerprint: a unique set of proteins that have been modified chemically by Parkinson’s disease. Ideally, the combination will be distinct from the same set in healthy individuals, in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and welders with parkinsonism.

To find Parkinson’s particular fingerprint, Cook and Zhang work with plasma from individuals in early to late stages of the disease. As the disease progresses, the pattern of chemical modifications should grow stronger. Initial results using protein microarrays are promising.