Dr. Drew Kern,
Clinical Movement Disorders Fellow,
Department of Neurology,
University of Toronto;
Instructor, Department of Neurology,
University of Colorado, Denver
Clinical Movement Disorders Fellowship: $50,000

Alpha-synuclein deposition in skin of patients with Parkinson’s disease, multiple systems atrophy and progressive supranuclear palsy

By the time people with Parkinson’s disease develop the motor control symptoms that send them to the doctor to find out what’s wrong, they have already lost 60-80 percent of the brain cells that create dopamine. So far, there’s no way to reverse the death of those brain cells. That’s why Dr. Drew Kern is searching for a biomarker test to identify Parkinson’s disease early.

“Identifying patients with Parkinson’s disease early is important because we hope to develop therapies in the future that will halt the progressive cell loss,” says Kern.

Currently, the only way to diagnose Parkinson’s is through a clinical evaluation by a doctor experienced in treating movement disorders. But even experienced clinicians can’t distinguish between Parkinson’s and other diseases that share similar symptoms. A definitive test would prevent misdiagnoses that sometimes occur, such as when people with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) are told they have Parkinson’s. Although the symptoms are initially similar, people with PSP typically die seven years into the disease. Parkinson’s disease progresses much more slowly.

Kern, who is a neurologist as well as a neuroscientist, is spending two years seeing patients as a clinical fellow at Toronto Western Hospital’s Movement Disorders Program under the mentorship of Dr. Anthony Lang. He’s also researching skin biopsies as a potential biomarker to identify misshapen proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as alpha-synuclein and tau.

If Kern can identify people with Parkinson’s who have abnormally shaped protein in their skin, he will have discovered a simple, relatively painless test to diagnose the disease. Eventually, it could even diagnose people before they experience symptoms. A skin biopsy would also end the uncertainty for people with Parkinson’s disease, and help them and their families plan for the future, says Kern.

Kern has always been puzzled about how people move spontaneously without even thinking about it – unless they have Parkinson’s. He enjoys the rapport he builds with people with movement disorders and their families as he tries to help them maintain a high quality of life.

“The emotional component of this is very satisfying, when you can help,” says Kern.