Biomarkers for early intervention in Parkinson disease (U01)

Clemens Scherzer
Clemens Scherzer, MD
The Brigham and Women's Hospital, Inc., Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA)


On the cellular level, proteins are the building blocks of our organs and brain. In addition to these building blocks, each cell needs a specific set of instructions that guide it to produce the right kind and the right amount of building blocks necessary for doing the special job the cell is supposed to do. Other molecules, including regulatory ribonucleic acids (regulatory RNAs), provide these instructions. While previously some of these were considered "junk" by some scientists, their role in the complexity of biological function is becoming clearer. Dr. Scherzer and others have already found that these previously disregarded RNAs are quite active in nerve cells and may have an impact in the onset and progression of Parkinson's disease. This offers a potentially ground breaking opportunity for biomarker development. Initially, the team will search for these RNAs associated with Lewy bodies, the cellular hallmark of Parkinson's, in brain tissue. Then, this team will look for related biomarkers in the bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid. The Scherzer lab is also cooperating to create a Harvard-National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) partnership. Dr. Scherzer and his colleagues have developed an impressive data and biospecimens bank for biomarkers discovery, and bringing that resource to NINDS as a partnership will help the Parkinson's Disease Biomarkers Program speed up biomarkers discovery significantly.


No cures exist, but the number of Parkinson's patients is expected to nearly double to 9.3 million in 2030. Two roadblocks impede progress on disease-modifying therapeutics. Current clinical trials are handicapped by late diagnosis, relying on impaired movements that occur when underlying neuropathology has far advanced. Moreover, in phase II clinical trials, testing safety and tolerability of a compound is straightforward, but drug effects on the underlying disease processes cannot be detected by current symptom-based measures. Here we propose a specific and a general strategy to overcome these roadblocks. More than 90,000 non-protein coding, regulatory RNAs may account for the complexity of the human brain in health and disease. Thousands of these previously hidden RNAs abound in dopaminergic neurons and regulate Parkinson's gene expression and bioenergetics processes involved in the disease onset. Regulatory RNAs integrate environmental, epigenetic, and genetic variation and directly reflect altered physiology without translation into protein. This offers a potentially ground breaking opportunity for biomarker development. Initially, we will systematically delineate all non-coding RNAs associated with incipient Parkinson's neuropathology in dopamine neurons laser-captured from 100 human brains using massively parallel sequencing and unlimited transcriptome reconstruction. Then, we will translate regulatory RNAs linked to the earliest neuropathological processes into digital biomarkers detectable in bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid of 242 and 167 subjects, respectively. To build a generally useful express lane for biomarker development we propose a Harvard-NINDS partnership. It will leverage an unparalleled infrastructure and deliver a longitudinal Parkinson's biobank -- a catalytic, open platform for jump-starting the discovery and validation of PD biomarkers. Ancillary cerebrospinal fluid collection will be performed in the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center Biomarker Study, a longitudinal, case-control study that already tracks clinical phenotypes and linked biospecimens of >1,886 individuals with Parkinson's disease and controls. This study will discover and translate viable biomarkers for the early detection of Parkinson's disease processes and contribute to a generally useful express lane for biomarkers development.


Goals of Project

  • Discovery: Revealing regulatory RNAs associated with the onset of Parkinson's neuropathology through linking regulatory, non-protein coding RNAs such as 'dark matter' lincRNAs and natural antisense RNAs to the onset of Parkinson's disease (PD).
  • Discovery and Replication: Leveraging resources available through the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center Biomarker Study to identify and replicate regulatory RNAs found in the PD autopsy cases in cerebrospinal fluid from PD and control cases.
  • Discovery and Replication: Translating regulatory RNAs into biofluid markers by determining if regulatory RNAs linked to the earliest disease processes will be a new class of digital biomarkers differentially detected in both blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples from PD patients verses healthy control subjects.

Enrollment Goals

75 Parkinson's disease participants (varying stages of disease).


  • Congratulations, to the Brigham and Women's Hospital for enrolling 76 participants into their PDBP project (100% of target enrollment) as of June 3, 2016 and completing, through the PDBP Data Management Resource, electronic documentation of 73 baseline visits, 59 six month visits, 32 twelve month visits, 26 eighteen month visits, 15 twenty-four month visits, 12 thirty month visits, and 1 thirty-six month visit!
  • dbGaP Submission: BRAIN Cell EncyclOpeDia of Transcribed Elements (BRAINcode)

Available Data Types