Learning more about Parkinson’s: Pacific Radiology

In Christchurch, a unique research study is underway through the New Zealand Brain Research Institute (NZBRI) working collaboratively with Pacific Radiology using Tau protein in a PET Scan. The focus is on Parkinson’s disease dementia.

Some people with that progressive disorder may develop dementia quite soon after diagnosis, others not for years. Finding out what might be behind this variability is the focus of the new research.

“We have previously conducted studies on the effect of the build-up of beta-amyloid proteins in the brains of Parkinson’s patients,” says Associate Professor Tracy Melzer, Imaging Research Manager at NZBRI. “It was therefore a natural progression to try to understand if the presence in the brain of another protein – tau – a key protein in many neurodegenerative diseases – is an important factor or not in Parkinson’s disease dementia.”

The funding for this research was approved over five years ago, but the study itself commenced only recently. “It’s been a long journey to get the study underway. There was the pandemic hiatus, but the main delay was in sourcing the right kind of tau. We want it to stick only to tau in the brain, not to other parts of the body. Pacific Radiology Group’s partners Cyclotek, based in Melbourne have now been able to produce what we require.”

Tau is one part of this research equation. The other is the use of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging techniques. “Other types of scans – MRIs and CTs (while powerful) – just didn’t cut it with helping to advance our molecular understanding of neurologic diseases,” says Dr Ross Keenan, neuroradiologist. “PET has opened up a whole new era, where we can study patients “in vivo” at Pacific Radiology’s clinic. This project is an excellent example of collaboration between researchers and clinicians with the ultimate aim of finding better treatments for these conditions.”

The study aims to put 50-60 people with Parkinson’s through the tau PET imaging. At NZBRI they have been undertaking a large longitudinal study for some 15 years of over 320 people with Parkinson’s. It is this group with varying degrees of Parkinson’s disease dementia, who will be invited to take part in the study.

The tau radiotracer is injected into a patient’s arm. It takes some 40-45 minutes to travel to the brain, or “to stick” as Dr Keenan puts it. It then binds to whatever tau is deposited in the brain emitting a glow which is visible through the PET scanner.

The researchers hope to complete the study in less than two years and to gain insight into whether tau protein has an impact on the progression and severity of Parkinson’s disease dementia.


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