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TGen RNA Study Adds Data, Finds Early Signs of Parkinson's Disease

New research led by TGen in Phoenix and published in the journal Nature Aging describes early biological signs of Parkinson's disease.

That knowledge could one day help scientists improve early diagnosis and treatment.

"If we can understand more what's happening in the body in the early stages of disease, or even before the disease starts, then we can partner with other groups and can use these data to develop more therapies for Parkinson's disease as well," said co-author Elizabeth Hutchins, a computational scientist at TGen.

The study utilized and contributed to a large data trove: the Parkinson Progression Markers Initiative, a large observational study established in 2010 and sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research as well as various industry, non-profit and private partners. 

"Our main goal was to create this resource of the longitudinal study and make that available for the scientific community. And, while we were doing that, we found this interesting finding that we think other people should look into," said Hutchins.

When researchers sequenced RNA in almost 4,900 samples collected from nearly 1,600 people over three years, they found more than 2,000 changes in gene expression.

They also saw alterations in white blood cell counts – more neutrophils, fewer lymphocytes – that show up well before the disease manifests and could hint at inflammation.

"There's changes that are starting to happen in the body. And I think that neuroinflammation is a signal of some of those changes that are already happening," said Hutchins.

But she clarified that those neutrophil and lymphocyte levels are still within normal, healthy ranges, so nothing would jump out at a doctor who requested a complete blood cell count.

"But what we're seeing is that it's significantly more in people with Parkinson's disease than in people that don't have Parkinson's disease. So while it's within that healthy range, it is already increasing," she said.

Experts predict Parkinson's disease will affect 12 million people worldwide by 2040.

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.