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Project to predict Parkinson’s disease using artificial intelligence

Junior Research Group Leader to receive € 650,000 research funding from Michael J Fox Foundation

The Foundation (MJFF) for Parkinson’s Research (founded by the US actor of the same name known from movies such as “Back to the Future”) decided to fund a research project aimed at better prediction algorithms for Parkinson’s disease using artificial intelligence techniques.

Parkinson’s disease is one of the most frequent neurodegenerative diseases of the brain with over 6 million affected patients worldwide. Similar to other adult-onset “multifactorial”, or “genetically complex” disorders, Parkinson’s is caused by an interplay of genetic and environmental / lifestyle factors. Despite increased knowledge about the disease’s etiology, it is still not possible to predict the onset of the disease reliably on an individual basis. “Accurate disease prediction is only possible in so called monogenic forms of Parkinson’s where highly penetrant singular DNA variants can cause the disease. However, this form of Parkinson’s is so rare that it only plays a very minor role in the Public Health domain” says Dr. Christina Lill, physician and epidemiologist at the Lübeck Interdisciplinary Platform for Genome Analytics at University of Lübeck and Lecturer at the Ageing Research Unit at Imperial College London School of Public Health. Dr. Lill, who also currently pursues her residency in medical genetics at the Institute of Human Genetics in Lübeck coordinates the project. “Our goal is to increase the precision of disease prediction for the more common, multifactorial form of Parkinson’s to be able to identify persons at high risk who can be included in clinical trials for early treatment or prevention of the disease.”

In order to be able to develop the improved disease-prediction algorithms, Dr. Lill’s group teamed up with six other European research teams and one US company to submit a research proposal to the MJFF. The Foundation now approved to fund this project with US$725.000 (approx. €650.000). Dr. Lill’s project partners are located at Imperial College London (UK), University of Utrecht (Netherlands), Danish Society for Cancer Research (Denmark), German Cancer Research Center (Germany), University of Freiburg (Germany), University of Naples (Italy), and Somalogic, Inc. at Boulder, CO (USA).

“The project shows great promise not least because it utilizes both clinical data and blood samples from the EPIC study, which was originally initiated to promote research on cancer and which will now also be used to study Parkinson’s disease” explains Prof. Elio Riboli at Imperial College London, who initiated the EPIC study and is Co-PI of the new MJFF-funded project. EPIC (which stands for “European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition”) began in the 1990’s by collecting detailed health data from over half a million participants in 10 European Countries, including a broad array of environmental and lifestyle variables, and blood samples which are stored in a dedicated biobank at the International Agency for Cancer Resaerch of the World Health Organization, based in Lyon, France. EPIC thus represents one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted worldwide. Since its inception, the health status of study participants has been (and continues to be) followed on a regular basis. The available data also make it possible to determine who of the study’s participants eventually developed Parkinson’s disease and who did not. Thus, the goal of the new MJFF-funded project is to determine which combination of molecular and environmental / lifestyle factors distinguishes individuals who later developed Parkinson’s from those who did not. “In addition to the already available data, blood samples from the EPIC participants selected for this project will be subjected to a novel high-throughput procedure developed by our project partners in the U.S. allowing to simultaneously determine the concentrations of more than 5,000 proteins in one experiment. These “proteome” data will then be combined with data from other domains to develop better disease prediction algorithms” says Prof. Lars Bertram, head of the Lübeck Interdisciplinary Platform for Genome Analytics, from where this project will be coordinated. To achieve this aim, the international consortium will apply a range of artificial intelligence techniques.

EPIC’s longitudinal design including the collection of pre-disease blood samples is perfectly suited for the main scientific aim of the new MJFF-funded project. The collaboration with EPIC was initiated after Dr. Lill was appointed Lecturer (part time) at Imperial College London in 2018. “Through this appointment at Imperial a plethora of new collaboration projects is made possible” explains Dr Lill. “We hope that by utilizing the extensive EPIC database will not only allow us to excel research into Parkinson’s but hopefully also into other common neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, through other externally funded research projects.”