How Does Research Help?

Ed Szeimis and Dr. Kathy Chung

One story on the road to discovery...
Finding Another Piece in the PD Puzzle
by Kathryn Chung, M.D.

To stop PD in its tracks, we must understand how and why the degeneration of brain cells occurs and how to revive or replace them. Basic science research is the only way to solve the PD puzzle.

A new field of study called "proteomics" is emerging as a powerful tool in understanding how brain cell pathways become disturbed. Scientists look at the proteins that are made by brain cells and see how they may be unique or different in certain diseases. For example, there are abnormal proteins made in Alzheimer's disease that are usually not seen in Parkinson's disease and vice versa. This may extend to Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis and other disorders which are also not well understood. These proteins are present in the fluid that the brain and spinal cord float in, called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). We hope that the abnormal processes going on in the brain are leaving evidence behind (fingerprints almost!) in the CSF.

The Parkinson Center at OHSU is participating in a research project that is designed to explore what fingerprints we can find in CSF from people with PD. Research participants at OHSU will join others enrolled at the University of Washington and at Baylor University in Texas. Participants have two visits—the first to perform a neurological examination and the second, one morning shortly after the initial exam, to draw a CSF sample. It is relatively easy to sample CSF, via a lumbar puncture, sometimes called a "spinal tap." After numbing the skin, a thin needle is inserted into the low back in the spinal column (far below the bottom of the spinal cord). Fluid is withdrawn and frozen for further study, along with a blood sample. Subjects generally leave with only a band-aid(!) and, in this case, $200 compensation and the satisfaction of advancing research in this exciting new field of proteomics, a field that could potentially make a difference in the care of people with PD.

By discovering and cataloguing all the abnormal proteins unique to PD, we hope to gain clues about how PD occurs, how it progresses, and why certain people have individual responses to medicines that others may not. These protein fingerprints in CSF might help us diagnose PD, or indicate what is causing cell death in PD, or they may let us know if someone has a risk for developing thinking problems or dyskinesias (unwanted, extra movements due to PD medications) that can come with advancing PD. In turn, this would help us better tailor a treatment plan for each individual with PD and help them prepare for potential changes in lifestyle before they occur. In essence, the PCO researchers and those who volunteer as research subjects can help solve more of the PD puzzle.

Being involved in a research study gave me an opportunity to feel that I was making a real contribution toward finding a cure for PD. I was skeptical at first, but constant monitoring by health professionals kept me very positive as I felt I was in the best hands available.

Dan Baker