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Skin could be key to early Parkinson's diagnosis, Iowa State researcher finds

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

Skin samples could be the key to an early Parkinson's disease diagnosis, an Iowa State researchers says.

Parkinson's — commonly misdiagnosed in the crucial early stages of the disease — currently can not be definitively diagnosed until an autopsy. Protein clumping found in the brain of Parkinson's patients also can be found the skin, Iowa State distinguished professor and lead author of the study Anumantha Kanthasamy said. 

"The important thing is you can even detect years earlier before you see the other clues," Kanthasamy said. "That's why it makes us very excited."

This conclusion comes after more than three years of research. Kanthasamy, who has worked in biomedical sciences at Iowa State for 20 years, said he was surprised skin was the answer to diagnosing the disease. 

Since Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disease with no cure, doctors can only offer therapies to slow down the progression, increasing the importance of early and accurate diagnoses.

To diagnose, doctors rely on symptoms and clinical signs, often starting with a tremor in the hand and leading to slow movement, stiffness and loss of balance. A definitive diagnosis requires access to the brain which is why a definitive diagnosis only comes post mortem. 

Kanthasamy said a diagnosis through observing symptoms is about 60% accurate. 

Researchers used 50 skin samples, half from donors with Parkinson's and half without, to test their theory. Of the patients with Parkinson's, all but one came back with the protein clumping. In the control group, one had the protein clumping.

"These results indicate tremendously high sensitivity and specificity which is critical for a diagnostic test," said Dr. Charles Adler, a professor at the Mayo Clinic Arizona, according to a news release.

Even with the high sensitivity, Kanthasamy said this test will be paired with observing symptoms to create a more accurate diagnosis. 

Kanthasamy collaborated with other researchers at Iowa State, the Mayo Clinic Arizona and the Banner Sun Health Research Institute on this study.

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.