Woman able to 'smell like Parkinson's disease' helps scientists create innovative diagnostic test

Woman able to ‘smell like Parkinson’s disease’ helps scientists create innovative diagnostic test

A 72-year-old British woman who can “smell like Parkinson’s disease” has helped scientists create a test that detects the disease. Joy Milne, from Perth, Scotland, has a rare condition that gives her a keen sense of smell, which allowed her to detect a different odor in her late husband when he was 33 years old – 12 years before he was diagnosed with the condition. A scent that the woman described as “musky”, different from her normal scent.

His observation piqued the interest of scientists, who investigated his condition and how it could be harnessed to help identify people with this neurological disease. Now, academics at the University of Manchester have developed a test that can identify people with Parkinson’s disease by passing a simple cotton swab across the back of the neck – through the sample, they have identified molecules associated with the disease to help diagnose the condition. Although still at an early stage of research, scientists are excited at the prospect of the NHS (National Health Service) being able to implement a simple test for the disease.

There is currently no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease, with diagnosis based on the patient’s symptoms and medical history. If the skin swab is successful outside of laboratory conditions, it can be implemented to get a quicker diagnosis.

Joy Milne assured that “it is not acceptable” for people with Parkinson’s to have such high degrees of neurological damage at the time of diagnosis. “It has to be detected much earlier – the same as cancer and diabetes,” she stressed. “Early diagnosis means much more efficient treatment and a better lifestyle for people.”

Scientists believe the smell could be caused by a chemical change in the skin’s oil, known as sebum, that is triggered by the condition. In preliminary work, Joy Milne was asked to smell shirts worn by people who have Parkinson’s and those who don’t. Milne correctly identified the shirts worn by Parkinson’s patients but pointed to one of the group of people without Parkinson’s who reeked of the disease – eight months later, the individual wearing the shirt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

In 2019, researchers at the University of Manchester, led by Professor Perdita Barran, announced that they had identified disease-linked molecules found in swabs. Now, scientists have developed a test capable of effectively detecting the disease.

The tests were successfully conducted in laboratories and it is now under evaluation whether they can be used in hospital settings. The findings, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, detail how sebum can be analyzed with mass spectrometry – a method that weighs molecules – to identify the disease.

More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease, the fastest growing neurological condition worldwide. It has a variety of symptoms, including tremors – particularly in the hands – problems with gait and balance, sluggishness and extreme stiffness in the arms and legs.

Perdita Barran noted that there is currently no cure but an early confirmatory diagnosis would allow patients to receive the correct treatment and medication more quickly.

Joy Milne is now working with scientists around the world to see if she can smell other diseases like cancer or tuberculosis. She also assured that she can sometimes smell people who have Parkinson’s in the supermarket or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists that she cannot tell them. “What GP would accept a man or woman walking in and saying ‘the woman who smells like Parkinson’s disease told me I have it’? Maybe in the future, but not now.”

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