St. Michael’s working on test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease

Our priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of our patients and residents, and our people.

Emergency department outbreak information >>

Only pre-approved visitors can visit patients at our sites. Please check our COVID-19 information page to learn more about what to expect for your appointment/visit and how to be approved as a visitor. >>

Book an appointment online for COVID-19 testing at one of our Assessment Centres. >>


Our Stories

St. Michael’s working on test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease

Toronto, March 2, 2016

By Leslie Shepherd

Dr. David Munoz
Dr. David Munoz, head of the Department of Pathology, at his microscope. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

Early diagnosis and treatment is critical for patients with Parkinson’s disease, because once the nervous system disorder starts destroying neurons they are gone forever.

Yet a patient has only a 50 per cent chance of being correctly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease on his or her first visit to a neurologist.

The head of the Division of Pathology at St. Michael’s Hospital is part of an international research project trying to determine which emerging medical test would most accurately diagnose Parkinson’s at an early stage. The work is funded in part by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, named for the Canadian actor who was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s in 1991, and the Physicians’ Services Incorporated Foundation.

Dr. David Munoz, an adjunct scientist in the hospital’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, said there are three possible approaches to diagnose Parkinson’s based on the presence of abnormal proteins found in areas outside of the brain.

The first is a biopsy of the submandibular gland, either of a pair of salivary glands found below the lower jaw. But this can be a difficult and invasive procedure, which neither physicians nor patients are keen to endure.

Dr. Munoz’s research project looks at two other options: testing for Parkinson’s during colonoscopies or through a skin biopsy, commonly performed by family physicians testing for skin conditions. By looking at tests conducted at the time of diagnosis, the researchers hope to compile evidence as to which is more accurate.

Dr. Munoz said the benefit of testing for Parkinson’s during a colonoscopy is that the test would just be part of the common test for colorectal cancer. Neurons are also present in the gastrointestinal tract, orchestrating the muscle contractions that move food through the tract.

He said one advantage of a skin or punch biopsy is that it is commonly performed under local anesthetic by family physicians in a doctor’s office or clinic for cancer or skin disorders. A device about the size of a pen nib removes a small piece of flesh.

“Eventually we hope to have a way of changing the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which at this point is subject to a 50-per-cent error rate,” said Dr. Munoz. “Imagine trying to diagnose someone with diabetes without being able to measure their blood sugar.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

See More of Our Stories in 2016