Early warning test for Parkinson’s receives national recognition

Dr Kay Double has been recognised by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as one of the best researchers in the country.

A national NHMRC publication, “10 of the best”, which includes Dr Double’s research, will be launched by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, on 1 September 2009 in the Scientia Gallery, University of New South Wales.

Dr Double’s research into Parkinson’s disease looks at the function of neuromelanin, a pigment unique to human brains. In the brain cells of a person with Parkinson’s disease, this pigment disappears. Based on her findings, Dr Double and her team have developed a new blood test which will provide early detection for the loss of neuromelanin, which may predict the onset of Parkinson’s.

Dr Double’s work investigates the changes in the vulnerability of the pigment in a Parkinson’s disease brain versus a healthy brain, why these changes occur and the consequences of these changes for the survival of the brain cells.

“We found that the pigment in the healthy brain protects the cells from free radical-damaging molecules and other toxins,” she said. “However, in the Parkinson’s diseased brain, the pigment is changed so that instead of protecting the cells, it becomes toxic itself.”

“Our research indicates that increased amounts of iron bound to the pigment cause the cells to be damaged and die.”

“This research has allowed us to design a new blood test for the onset of Parkinson’s disease. It has also highlighted the potential to develop new treatments to slow down, or even stop altogether, brain cell death,” said Dr Double.

The blood test, currently being commercialised, will not only provide early detection but also correct diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. At the moment, Parkinson’s disease can be diagnosed only after signs such as slowness, stiffness and tremor appear.

NeuRA’s Executive Director, Prof Peter Schofield, said, “Kay’s outstanding research, conducted at NeuRA over the past five years, validates our mission to conduct world-class medical research to cure human disease, improve quality of life, and thus create a legacy for the future. This recognition by the NHMRC is a direct reflection of her exceptional ability in the research arena.”

Dr Double has been awarded a NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship to continue her research into the causes, diagnosis and treatments of Parkinson’s disease.