A new trial in South Australia hopes to diagnose Parkinson’s disease earlier by checking dopamine levels in the brain

More than 100,000 Australians are living with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that impacts movement, learning and behaviour.

Researchers understand the disease is linked to low dopamine levels in the brain and plan to use that knowledge in a nation-first data-collection trial.

Frank Jensen is participating in the project after he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s at 45 years old.

“I had a tremor in my left arm, I get it from push biking, [but] I realised it’s been two weeks since I’ve been push biking, that’s a bit weird,” Mr Jensen said.

While Mr Jensen received his diagnosis shortly after, the disease is often hard to detect.

“I went to the neurologist and he did some tests. [In] 10 to 15 minutes in he said ‘you better sit down and put your clothes on, I have something not very nice to tell you’,” he said.

“I know it’s downhill but I don’t know how steep that will be.”

a man in a dark shirt in an office
Frank Jensen has joined the trial.(ABC News: Shari Hams)

But Mr Jensen thinks more research into the debilitating disease gives optimism for the 32 Australians diagnosed with Parkinson’s every day.

The Hospital Research Foundation is providing $300,000 towards the new research, in conjunction with South Australia’s Medical and Health Institute (SAHMRI).

The foundation’s executive director, Olivia Nassaris, said there had been 200 participants in the trial thus far, including herself.

Ms Nassaris said the study was “scanning both people living with Parkinson’s, and then a control group of people living without Parkinson’s so we can create a database of scans.”

“We’ve injected people with fluorinated dopamine which highlights the dopamine in their brains and this is going to become a tool in the toolbox of diagnosis and treatment.

“In the future, once we build up this bio-bank of scans, it can actually be used as an effective way to treat Parkinson’s.”

A large medical machine in a room with wiring
The only cyclotron machine in South Australia is at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.(ABC News: Shari Hams)

‘On the cutting edge’

The fluorinated dopamine (F-DOPA) is created through a high-tech cyclotron machine – one of two in Australia.

Radio-chemist Matthew Lawson said scientists predominantly used the F-DOPA for cancer diagnosis.

A man in a lab coat standing in front of a medical machine
Matthew Lawson says scientists are working on the cutting edge.(ABC News: Shari Hams)

“We come in around 2am and we turn the cyclotron on, it runs for an hour or two and it creates radiation that’s pumped into our synthesisers,” he said.

“It automatically manufactures the DOPA, and is dispensed into vials.

“We are on the cutting edge of being able to diagnose Parkinson’s in Australia.”

Push for participants

Both people living with Parkinson’s and those who aren’t are encouraged to take part in the research.

Olivia Nassaris said researchers planned to use the data collected in years to come to understand the disease better.

A woman in a black top standing in front of a large window
Olivia Nassaris has also participated in the trial.(ABC News: Shari Hams)

‘There’s been a diverse range of people participating in the trial,” she said.

“To have this bio-bank of scans will be useful for clinicians.

“This bio-bank of data may diagnose people fast, get treatment sooner and live better.”

Parkinson’s patient Frank Jensen said he hoped it made a difference to those living with the disease.

“If it can help future generations avoid Parkinson’s or get a bit of life with Parkinson’s then that’s fantastic,” he said.

“I hope to get some of the benefits before my life comes to an end.”

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