Marker development: anarchy vs plutocracy?

You’ve heard me whining that we need a diagnostic “trait marker” for PSP. In other words, we need to be able to accurately distinguish PSP – during life — from such mimics as Parkinson’s, multiple system atrophy, Alzheimer’s, corticobasal degeneration, normal-pressure hydrocephalus and others. Only in that way can we create “pure” groups of patients in which to study the disease and test specific treatments.
Right now, the best diagnostic test we have is the MDS-PSP Diagnostic Criteria, which requires only traditional history-taking and a hands-on neurological exam. Those criteria work well for PSP-Richardson syndrome after the first couple of years but not quite well enough for earlier-stage PSP-RS nor for the “minority” or “atypical” types, which together account for 60 to 75 percent of PSP.


The most promising markers using laboratory or imaging data are levels of phosphorylated tau and neurofilament light chain (NfL) in the spinal fluid and blood; and perhaps MRI measurements of the size of the midbrain, pons and related areas at the base of the brain. But these are far from ready for prime time. NfL is a protein component of brain cells that has been shown to occur at about a two-fold higher level, and to increase faster over time, in PSP and MSA than in PD, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. MRI changes don’t occur in the early stages. Positron emission tomography is coming along, but won’t be ready for use in PSP for another few years, and even then will be costly and not widely available.


Last week, my routine surveillance of new PSP-related research papers in the literature yielded two interesting hits — both about PSP trait markers, both using new lab techniques, and both from Italy.

Corinne Quadalti and colleagues at the University of Bologna measured NfL and alpha-synuclein in spinal fluid and blood. They found that plasma NfL alone worked very well in distinguishing PD from PSP, with an accuracy of 0.94. (“Accuracy” in this context is the area under the receiver operating characteristic curve, which compares sensitivity with specificity. Perfect accuracy is 1.0 and a useless test’s accuracy is 0.5, where a coin flip would work as well.)


Alpha-synuclein is the main protein aggregating in Parkinson’s, dementia with Lewy bodies and multiple system atrophy. It is to those diseases what tau is to PSP and CBD. To measure it, they used a new technique called “real-time quaking-induced conversion” (RT-QuIC; pronounced, “R-T quick”), which measures that protein in its misfolded and aggregated forms. This prevents that abundant protein in its normal form from swamping the measurement. The result was positive in 91% of their patients with PD and in none of their 58 patients with PSP or CBD.


Now, if you have a nose for statistics, you’ll raise your hand and say, “But those 9% of PD patients with a negative test comprise more people in the general population than all the patients with PSP or CBD, so a negative test doesn’t mean much.” and you’d be right. So, while the sensitivity of the test for PD is excellent, the specificity is low, rendering the overall accuracy in a real-world situation insufficient.


For that reason, the authors combined two measurements – spinal fluid NfL and serum alpha-synuclein, with a resulting improvement in distinguishing PD from PSP/CBD to a sensitivity of 97.4% and specificity of 100%. That’s more like it, but keep in mind a few issues: They combined PSP and CBD into one group, and we don’t know if the results apply as well to each disease alone. They had no autopsy confirmation of the diagnoses, which means that these patients were already at a stage that was possible to diagnose using traditional clinical criteria; this means that patients with earlier-stage illness will be needed in a follow-up study. Finally, and as always, the results have to be confirmed at other centers using other techniques.


The other eye-catching paper was from Ida Manna and colleagues at the University Magna Graecia in Catanzaro, Italy. They use exosomal micro-RNA (miRNA) in blood to distinguish among PSP, PD and healthy controls.

Exosomes are tiny bubbles of brain cell membrane enclosing whatever cell contents were there when the bubble pinched itself off and floated free. They often find their way into the bloodstream. MicroRNAs are stretches of RNA averaging only about 22 nucleotides. They do not encode proteins as messenger RNA (mRNA) does, but instead bind to mRNAs to regulate their translation into protein. They are specifically encoded in the DNA of the genome and about 2,000 of them are known to exist.


Dr. Manna et al measured levels of 188 miRNAs for which there is evidence of association with some neurodegenerative disease. They found a set of 6 miRNAs that together yielded an accuracy in distinguishing PSP from PD of 0.91. The accuracy for distinguishing PSP from controls was 0.90.
Of course, many of the same caveats that I listed for the other paper apply to this one. Plus, PSP mimics other than PD were not included in the analysis. Just as important is that there were only 25 patients with PSP and they were a mixed bag of 20 with PSP-Richardson and 5 with PSP-Parkinson. In applying a marker for the purpose of excluding patients with PD from a study of PSP, it is critical to be able to distinguish PD from PSP-P. It is unlikely that those 5 patients with PSP-P constituted a statistically valid sample for that purpose. That will be a project for another day.


What do I take away from these two papers? Neither of them alone provides a marker just yet, and each has its drawbacks given the current early stage of work. But perhaps, with some refinement, combining them with other non-invasive markers could create a diagnostic panel with enough accuracy to distinguish PSP from all of its mimics. After all, in medicine in general, multiple diagnostic tests (several tests of body fluids, some imaging, a physiologic test such as an EKG) must be combined to produce an actionable diagnosis. Why should PSP be any different?


I think the problem (and it’s a good problem to have) is that new candidate markers are being identified all the time, as are ever more sophisticated technology for measuring them, with RT-QuIC, miRNA and exosomes as prime examples. That means as researchers turn their attention to early-phase development of newer ideas using newer technology, ideas that looked potentially useful if pursued further may be neglected and not developed into practical tests. What to do? Do we just let scientific nature take its course in its traditional, anarchical way, waiting for research groups to take techniques with good initial data to the next level? Or should a group of experts with an iron fist issue some sort of “white paper” listing which markers with good preliminary evidence, perhaps like the ones I describe here, should be nurtured with funding and collaborations? If so, who chooses those experts? And once the experts are chosen, how can we prevent them from favoring the ideas in which they’ve invested their own time, resources and reputations?


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