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Measuring Mitochondrial Function in Parkinson's Disease

Mitochondrial dysfunction, either caused by a genetic mutation or acquired from environmental factors, has been implicated in the development of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Brain cells are very sensitive to oxidative stress and a loss of mitochondrial integrity. Damage to mitochondrial membranes, proteins and DNA has been detected in the brain tissue of Parkinson’s patients. Now, a new diagnostic tool from Agilent Technologies, called the Seahorse Mitochondrial Stress Test, has the ability to directly assess mitochondrial health from a simple blood test.

A Canary in the Coal Mine

When the energy capacity of the cell falls below a critical threshold, deterioration in its energy generating capacity (bioenergetics) occurs and eventually can trigger the onset of a degenerative disease. Mitochondria can serve as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ by sending out early warning signals of the impending bioenergetic crisis. In the case of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a deterioration of mitochondrial function in nerve cells that produce dopamine in a structure called the substantia nigra disrupts normal signaling ultimately resulting in the inability to control movement and coordination.

The Seahorse Mitochondrial Stress Test

The Seahorse Mitochondrial Stress Test was developed to directly measure mitochondrial function from a simple blood test. This test measures oxygen consumption, and the resultant amount of ATP produced, at each stage of the electron transport chain. It provides a composite mitochondrial health profile from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC’s) that appears to correspond with the mitochondrial health of neurons in the brain. Victor Darley-Usmar, PhD and his team at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, have developed an equation that takes this data and produces a single numeric score, the Bioenergetic Health Index (BHI).

A New Paradigm: Mitochondrial Medicine

After ten years of working to develop and validate this new technology, Seahorse Bioscience (recently acquired by Agilent Technologies) is working to move this assay into clinical practice. In the not too distant future, when a patient is being evaluated with symptoms of neurologic dysfunction, their physician will be able to order a Seahorse Mitochondrial assay as a means of early disease detection. Similar to a doctor recommending dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce high cholesterol and prevent heart disease, physicians could suggest modifications to improve mitochondrial functioning if the Seahorse Mitochondrial test comes back abnormal. In the near future, mitochondrial function testing could have a significant impact on preventing Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases of aging.

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