Elizabeth Quigley BBC News, Scotland
A Scottish woman who discovered she could detect Parkinson’s through her sense of smell has prompted scientists to develop a swab test that could be used to diagnose her.
A group of Manchester researchers claim to have developed a new method that can detect the disease in three minutes.
However, before the diagnostic test can be used in clinics or by general practitioners, further studies are needed to validate the results.
The scientific work was inspired by Joy Milne, a retired nurse from Perth, a city in central Scotland in the United Kingdom.
The 72-year-old woman knew her husband Les had Parkinson’s disease more than 12 years before he was diagnosed.
Joy had noticed a change in her husband’s scent.
“He had a pretty nasty musty smell, especially around his shoulders and neck, and his skin had definitely changed,” she says.
She only became aware of the link between the smell and the disease after Les was diagnosed, and met people who had the same smell at a support group for Parkinson’s patients in the UK.
Les died in June 2015.
Now a team from the University of Manchester, working with Joy, has developed a simple skin rub test that they claim is 95% accurate in laboratory conditions for determining if a person has Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers analyzed sebum, the oily substance in the skin, which was removed with a cotton swab from the patients’ backs, an area that was washed less frequently.
Using mass spectrometry, they compared 79 people with Parkinson’s disease to a control group of 71 people without the disease.
The researchers found more than 4,000 unique connections in the samples, 500 of which differed between people with Parkinson’s disease and the unaffected group.
The study was published in Journal of the American Chemical Society.
A “transformative” test
Professor Perdita Barran, who led the research, points out that there is currently no chemical test for Parkinson’s disease and that thousands of people are on waiting lists for neurological advice.
In her opinion, the development of a confirmatory test that could be used by a general practitioner would be “transformative”.
“We previously developed it in a research lab and are now working with colleagues in hospital testing labs to transfer our test to them so they can use it,” she adds.
“We hope to be able to start testing people in Manchester within two years.”
Parkinson’s disease is the fastest growing neurological disease in the world.
According to 2019 estimates, more than 8 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, according to the UN.
There is no cure or definitive diagnostic test, and doctors diagnose patients by observing symptoms.
This condition can cause a variety of symptoms, including difficulty walking, speaking, and shaking.
Months or years of waiting for a diagnosis
Scientists now have to validate their results in a clinical laboratory before they can be used in patients.
James Jopling, director of Parkinson’s UK in Scotland, said the discovery could make a real difference for people with the disease.
“Currently, without a definitive test, people have to wait months or years to be diagnosed, so it’s extremely important that people get the treatment and support they need and that researchers can start new treatments,” she explained.
Joy knows what an earlier diagnosis would have meant for her and her family.
“We could have spent more time as a family,” she notes.
“We would have traveled more. If we had known that earlier, I could have explained the mood swings and depression.”
The night before her death, her husband made her promise to have her sense of smell tested.
“You have to do it because it will make a difference,” her late husband told Joy, the 72-year-old says.
She now hopes that her discovery will make a difference.
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