Year/Course: 2023-2024, Lent 2024
Project type: Medical
Mentor: Robert Glen

Inventors: Professor Tuomas Knowles & Dr Aviad Levin, Chemistry

Current diagnoses of Parkinsons disease rely on post-mortem analysis or the presence of symptomatic disease. However by the time symptoms emerge the disease itself has already progressed sufficiently to cause permanent neurological damage.

Parkinsons, in common with several other neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimers and Huntingdons disease, is linked to the self-assembly or aggregation of proteins in the brain and central nervous system. These aggregates, which grow over time to form the larger fibrous plaques, are called “seeds”. The inventors have spent the past 4 years developing techniques that allow them to give a quantitative measure of the seeds and hence of the stage of Parkinsons in patients. 

The current gold standard approach to assessing the presence of seeds is called Artiquick and takes 72-96 hours using a standard 96-well plate. This identifies the presence of seeds by looking at the ability of the seeds to grow under certain conditions. Unfortunately each lab currently has its own set of reagents and process for this which makes reproduceability difficult. In addition the test can only show whether seeds were present or absent in a sample, without a quantitative measure.

The inventors have developed a technique based on dividing the sample into microdroplets until each sample is so dilute that it either contains one seed or none. When the assay is run they can then count the number of positive droplets, and this gives a quantitative measure of the number of seeds present in the original sample. Through a partnership with the Michael J Fox foundation, they are able to access cerebro-spinal-fluid samples from a range of patients in order to test their method.

There are several questions for the i-Team to address in this project. Firstly, does this technology add value to the wider community? How can it best be made available for clinical use, for example through providing equipment and training for hospitals, or through running a central service for analysing samples? Are there applications for this technique in either diagnostics or therapeutics for other neurodegenerative diseases? And finally, what benefits would it bring to patients and clinicians to have access to a technique to measure the progression of these types of diseases?