A recent study from the Global Parkinson’s Genetic Program found a novel genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s in people of African ancestry. This finding once again brings to light the ongoing need for improving diversity in Parkinson’s research – a field that has long been biased towards Western populations of European ancestry.

The Global Parkinson’s Genetic Program (GP2) is a five-year research program, funded by the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative and The Michael J. Fox Foundation, focused on understanding the genetic diversity of Parkinson’s. Recently, researchers involved in the consortium have identified a new genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry. This large genetic study, which involved 1488 cases of Parkinson’s and 196,430 controls, all of African descent, found a previously unrecognized variation in a region of DNA called the GBA1 gene that both increased the risk of Parkinson’s as well as influencing the age of onset. Various mutations of the GBA1 gene are the most common genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s, present in around 10-15% of people with Parkinson’s.

More research is needed to better understand the potential implications of this discovery, however, it does highlight the importance of promoting diversity in research. Historically, Parkinson’s research has focused on people of European descent, skewing our current understanding of the condition. Even now, we can still see this bias. A recent study analysing the genetics of Parkinson’s in over 37,000 cases reported 90 regions of DNA where tiny variations are associated with an increased risk of developing the condition.

While these results were interesting, the study’s authors admit that they only relate to individuals of European ancestry. The effects of this extend beyond research and into the clinical care space as well, where members of under-represented communities often experience lower rates of diagnosis and reduced access to and quality of care.

There are now many efforts around the world to address and improve this. Here in the UK, Cure Parkinson’s is funding the East London cohort study, led by Professor Alastair Noyce of Queen Mary University of London. The study follows a cohort of people with Parkinson’s from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (including 37% Asian and 11% Afro-Caribbean) with the goal of establishing clinical trial-ready cohorts.

Although these are good initiatives, there is still much work to be done. It is important for Parkinson’s research to make an active effort to include individuals from populations often forgotten and left behind to ensure everyone receives the proper attention and care. A good example is shown in David Plummer’s powerful short documentary, Shaking hands with the Devil, which shares the stories of people with Parkinson’s in Kenya.

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