“Parkinson’s smell” could lead to earlier diagnosis
New research has been published this month which could lead to earlier diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
But it’s the story of Joy Milne, the member of the public who is behind the research, which has really captured people’s attention.
The research centres on identifying specific molecules in sebum – an oily substance secreted by the skin – which have a scent unique to Parkinson’s disease. Researchers at the University of Manchester believe that this knowledge could now be used to develop a diagnostic test – something that Parkinson’s doesn’t yet have, despite years of research.
And the reason that scientists were able to identify these “Parkinson’s smell” molecules is all down to Joy.
When Joy’s husband Les was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the couple joined a support group together, where Joy realised something: the people they were meeting all had the same distinct odour that she had noticed in her husband more than a decade earlier.
Realising that the smell, which she describes as “woody” and “musky”, might be related to the disease, Joy mentioned it to scientists at a Parkinson’s conference. She thought they might find it mildly interesting, as she had.
But they took it very seriously.
Researchers at the School of Biological Sciences at Edinburgh University were already aware that Parkinson’s can cause the skin to produce an excess of sebum, so they theorised that something in this substance could be the key.
An experiment was devised, using six people who had a Parkinson’s diagnosis, and six who did not (a “control” group). The subjects wore their t-shirts for a day, then the clothes were bagged up and given to Joy, who was asked to report whether the scent was present on each one.
Almost immediately, Joy accurately identified the six people with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, and reported that five of the remaining six did not have the scent. Despite Joy also identifying the sixth control subject as having the “Parkinson’s smell”, researchers told her that getting 11 out of 12 correct was statistically significant.
The most recent research, published on 20th March in the journal ACS Central Science, has been led by scientists at the University of Manchester, with funding from two major Parkinson’s charities. The team used mass spectrometry to analyse sebum and identify the molecular compounds causing the smell. Joy, who is now an Honorary Lecturer at the university, was involved throughout the research, double-checking each sample to identify if the unique odour was present.
The new research means that scientists now have specific biomarkers for the condition, which they hope will lead to the creation of the first non-invasive Parkinson’s screening test.
Thanks to Joy’s super-smelling abilities, this small but fascinating study could lead to an earlier diagnosis for thousands of people.