A woman’s hyper-sensitive sense of smell has been harnessed by scientists to develop a test that can diagnose Parkinson’s disease.
The test has been in development for years since academics discovered Joy Milne could smell the condition. This 72-year-old woman from Perth, Scotland, has a rare condition that enhances her sense of smell.
A different odor developed in her late husband, Les, when he was 33 – 12 years before he was diagnosed with the disease that causes parts of the brain to progressively damage over time.
Described as “the woman with Parkinson’s smell,” Milne described a musky aroma different from his normal smell.
Researchers decided to investigate what she could smell in order to see if they could use it to identify people with neurological disorders.
Several years later, researchers at the University of Manchester developed a test that can identify people with Parkinson’s disease using a cotton bud rubbed along the neck.
By examining the sample, researchers can identify molecules associated with the disease and diagnose the person.
It is still early in the research process, but scientists are optimistic that the NHS will be able to deploy a simple test for the condition in the near future.
Parkinson’s disease cannot be diagnosed definitively, and it is diagnosed based on symptoms and medical history.
A skin swab that works outside laboratory conditions could be used to accomplish a faster diagnosis.
The fact that Parkinson’s patients had such high levels of neurological damage when diagnosed was unacceptable to Milne, who said: “I think it needs to be detected much earlier – just as with cancer and diabetes, earlier diagnosis results in more efficient treatment and a healthier lifestyle for the patient.”
Changing your diet and exercising can make a tremendous difference.
Her husband, who was a former doctor, was determined to find a researcher who would look at the link between odor and Parkinson’s disease, so they came across Dr. Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh in 2012.
Scientists believe the scent may be caused by a chemical change in skin oil, called sebum.
The researchers asked Milne to smell T-shirts worn by people with Parkinson’s and those without. In addition to correctly identifying the Parkinson’s patients’ T-shirts, she said that one in the group without Parkinson’s smelled like it – eight months later, that person was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
In the hope of developing a test to detect Parkinson’s disease, researchers worked under the assumption that if a chemical signature in the skin linked to the disease could eventually be identified, the disease could eventually be diagnosed using simple skin samples.
A team led by Barran at the University of Manchester announced in 2019 that they had identified molecules found in skin swabs that were linked to the disease. A test has now been developed using this information by scientists.
Researchers have successfully conducted the tests in research labs and are assessing whether they can be used in hospitals. The test could potentially be used in the NHS so doctors can refer patients for Parkinson’s tests if it proves successful.
According to the study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, sebum can be analyzed with mass spectrometry, a method that weights molecules, to detect disease. Some molecules are only present in Parkinson’s patients.
The researchers compared 79 swabs from Parkinson’s patients with 71 from a healthy control group.
“At the moment, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but a confirmatory diagnosis would allow them to receive the right treatment and receive medication to reduce their symptoms,” Barran said.
Furthermore, nonpharmaceutical interventions, like movement classes and nutritional instruction, can be very helpful. Most importantly, they will have a confirmed diagnosis to know what is wrong with them.”
As she explained, “What we’re doing now is seeing if hospital laboratories can do what we did in a research lab. When that happens, we will look into making this a confirmatory diagnostic that can be used along with referrals from GPs to consultants.
There are currently about 18,000 people waiting for a neurological consult in Greater Manchester, and just clearing that list without adding any more people could take two years. 10-15% of those are suspected of having Parkinson’s disease.
“Our test would be able to determine whether they did or did not (have Parkinson’s) and refer them to the correct specialist. So at the moment, we’re discussing the potential of referring patients to the right specialists quickly.
Milne is working with scientists around the world to see if she can smell other diseases, including cancer and tuberculosis.
“Whenever I go shopping, I must go very early or very late due to people’s perfumes. I am unable to go into the chemical aisle of the supermarket.
“So yes, sometimes I find it a curse, but I have also done research on TB and cancer in the US – just preliminary work. In other words, it’s both a curse and a benefit.”
The woman said she sometimes smells people with Parkinson’s in supermarkets or walking down the street, but medical ethicists have told her not to tell them.
“Which GP would accept a woman walking in saying, ‘the woman who smells Parkinson’s told me I have it? Maybe in the future but not now.”