ION-DRI Programme


Translation in Action: Improving diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease

We hear from the researchers who are working to translate neuroscience discoveries into ground-breaking new diagnostics and therapies for people living with dementia and other neurological conditions.

Improving diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease

Researchers at the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) at UCL are working to better understand the diversity and complexity of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Our project to build a landmark new facility at Gray’s Inn Road will create an interdisciplinary, collaborative environment, and further support our world-leading scientists to understand disease mechanisms and translate this knowledge into new therapies. 

Dr Tim Bartels

Dr Tim Bartels, Group Leader at the UK DRI at UCL, is researching Parkinson’s and other synucleinopathies – diseases which involve a build-up of a misfolded version of the protein alpha-synuclein. He tells us about his work. 







What is your biggest motivation for pursuing your area of research? 

My main motivation is to actually get something into the clinic that helps patients. In the past, I’ve worked closely with patients and carers, and it really does bring to the forefront the idea that what you’re doing has the potential to provide huge benefits to people’s lives. What really drives me is not only helping to bring therapeutics into the clinic, but also helping to better understand disease progression, so we can equip people with a better understanding of what their life will look like in the years following a diagnosis. 

What big projects are you working on at the moment? Can you tell us about the work you’re doing around diagnostics?

At the moment we’re developing a blood biomarker, based on a protein we have done extensive research on in the past 15 years: alpha-synuclein. The biomarker seems to track well with disease progression in patients’ blood. There is currently no clinically valid biomarker for synucleinopathies, and a third of cases turn out to have been incorrectly diagnosed (when examined after death). So this would drastically improve accurate diagnosis of Parkinson’s and other synucleinopathies. 

We’re also developing radiotracers to make Parkinson’s more traceable in patients. These are special radioactive contrast agents, most commonly injected into the blood, that can be used to give a detailed picture of which areas of the brain are affected by disease and how severely. They are a much better marker of disease progression than, for example, blood biomarkers alone. Radiotracers have already been developed for Alzheimer’s and have proved hugely beneficial. 

What aspect of your work are you most excited about?

We’re doing some fascinating work around the gut-brain axis in synucleinopathies that has huge potential to impact patients. In neurodegenerative disease in general, we know there are lots of peripheral signs of dysfunction that occur before the main symptoms of the disease begin to manifest. In the case of Parkinson’s, things like digestion issues start to occur five to ten years before the hallmark motor symptoms start. At least two thirds of Parkinson’s patients are affected by gut issues, so if we were able to catch it there and prevent the disease from affecting the brain, the impact would be huge. 

Alpha synuclein (credit: Shutterstock StudioMolekuul)

What’s one thing you find challenging about your work? 

Translational work, and modern research in general, encompasses multiple labs and requires lots of different specialisations. In translational work you have the added complexity of involving clinicians and neuropathologists. Clinicians interact most with patients and know what they need and what they struggle with most. On the basic research side, we are trying to understand the mechanisms in the most detailed fashion. You really need all aspects, and getting everyone to talk to each other and fit all the work together is challenging but also fun. Detailed, good communication is so important. 

How will your research impact people living with Parkinson’s? 

Primarily, in terms of more accurately diagnosing the disease. That doesn’t sound like much at first, but it really will help clinicians to better advise patients about what the next five or ten years post diagnosis will look like. It will also help with drug development, identifying risk factors, and ensuring people are given the right treatment at the right time in their disease progression. 

What’s coming up next for the Bartels’ lab? 

We’re always trying to gain more understanding of the basic mechanisms. I’m also really excited to start working with the radiotracers in patients, so far we have only used them in cells. We’ve got some exciting stuff coming up involving our biomarker work too: we’re working with other labs to try and get our cerebrospinal fluide (CSF) biomarker approved by the NHS, so it might enter the clinic in the next five to ten years. It’s always really satisfying seeing research come full circle, from the lab to actually reaching patients and improving their lives.