How a biobank could help solve Parkinson’s disease “puzzle”


Author: Jason SinclairPublished: 1 July 2021

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A new biobank at Lund University is giving researchers the opportunity to search the data and genetic profiles of more than 1,000 people with Parkinson’s disease in the hunt for new insights and treatments. Co-ordinator Maria Swanberg tells us how the facility could help improve our understanding of the condition

The MultiPark biobank is part of Sweden’s top-ranked university, Lund, and among its contents are the genetic profiles of more than 1,000 people with Parkinson’s disease, along with comprehensive information about their lifestyles and medical histories.

Maria Swanberg, senior lecturer in translational neurogenetics at Lund University and the biobank’s coordinator, says that recent developments in Alzheimer’s disease research have shown that biomarkers, combined with cognitive tests, can predict diagnosis with high accuracy. “I hope, with more research in this area, we will soon have similar tools for Parkinson’s disease,” she says.

“The currently available treatments for Parkinson’s treat the symptoms but not the underlying cause of the disease. By gaining more knowledge on the factors underlying the condition, I hope treatments that slow down or even prevent it can be developed.”

“Genetic factors can tell us a lot about how Parkinson’s develops”

All patients with confirmed Parkinson’s diagnoses in the region of Skåne, which includes the cities of Lund and Malmö, were invited to participate in the project. Almost half of those asked – a total of 1,011 – went forward with the study, giving detailed questionnaire answers, clinical data and blood samples. “Many patients at the university hospital neurology clinic in Lund are included in several different studies. Taking part in these studies can be regarded as both rewarding and challenging for the individual,” says Swanberg.

She also has personal reasons for striving for better Parkinson’s treatment: with a close relative at an ‘advanced’ stage of the condition, she sees “the great need for better treatment strategies in order to improve the quality of life for affected individuals and their close ones”. Leading the work at Lund, Swanberg has been responsible for planning and designing the study, working with study participants, and data handling.

The data and samples collected are ready to be examined for clues by scientists. The MultiPark biobank archive can be used for many different types of research, Swanberg explains, “including biomarkers, epidemiology and genetics. Biomarkers are important tools for earlier diagnostics and monitoring of disease, while epidemiology and genetics can help us understand the biological mechanisms behind the disease and identify new therapeutic targets. Genetic risk factors can tell us a lot about why the disease develops.”

Maria Swanberg, senior lecturer in translational neurogenetics at Lund University and the biobank’s coordinator.

Looking for connections

Published studies inspired by the biobank have already contributed to a better understanding of how specific gene mutations could cause Parkinson’s disease, and papers have been produced on the familial forms of Parkinson’s. Samples have been collected over four years and include serum, plasma, DNA and RNA components to allow the researchers of the future to look at both biomarkers and genetic variations. This information can be cross-referenced against lifestyle factors to see patterns in who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Kajsa Brolin, a doctoral student in translational neurogenetics at Lund University, is using the underground lab for her thesis while investigating Parkinson’s genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. “I combine data to see whether there’s any connection between the nitrogenous bases, lifestyle habits and whether or not a person gets the disease,” she explains.

The whole objective of the biobank, according to Brolin, is “to understand the disease”. After that, “the big objective is to find new drugs. I hope that the biobank can be one piece of that particular puzzle.”

Lead image: Kajsa Brolin at a freezer containing samples. Lead image credit: Kennet Ruona.

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