Progress towards skin swab test for Parkinson’s

20 March 2019

A new study has identified chemicals in the skin responsible for a unique scent in people with Parkinson’s disease.

The chemicals can be detected in an oily substance secreted from the skin called sebum. The findings suggest Parkinson’s disease could one day be diagnosed from skin swabs, potentially leading to new tests. There are no tests for Parkinson’s disease at present. Patients are diagnosed from observation of symptoms, a process that can take several years.

Scientists at The University of Edinburgh first had the idea that Parkinson’s might be diagnosed from chemicals in the skin when they met Joy Milne, who has an acute sense of smell and had noticed that people with the disease have a unique scent. In a pilot study, Joy accurately sorted Parkinson’s patients from healthy people by smelling T-shirts they had worn for 24 hours.

Using a specialised technique that mimics the human nose, researchers at The University of Manchester analysed sebum samples of patients with Parkinson’s Disease. They identified three molecules in sebum linked to the odour caused by Parkinson’s Disease. Researchers say this could lead to new tests.

This is a really exciting step towards a test for Parkinson’s that could cut short the time it currently takes to reach a diagnosis. Having a conclusive test would have a huge impact, not only for patients, but could also aid research for new treatments.

Dr Tilo Kunath
CRM group leader

Parkinson’s is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls body movement. There currently is no cure, but researchers hope that spotting affected people sooner could help them in the search for treatments. The story of how Joy Milne met Dr Kunath has previously attracted a lot of attention from the media, including an episode of BBC Scotland Investigates “The woman who can smell Parkinson’s”.

Joy Milne approached Dr Kunath after a talk which he gave at CRM organised specifically for people interested in Parkinson's research. At the event she mentioned she had noticed that people with Parkinson’s emit a unique, subtle scent. Some months later, a chance discussion with a colleague led Dr Kunath to pursue the idea further, leading him to contact Professor Perdita Barran at the University of Manchester.



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