A woman who can ‘smell Parkinson’s’ has helped scientists come up with a test that could spot the disease.
The test has been in the works for years, after academics realized Joy Milne could smell the disease.
The 72-year-old from Perth, Scotland suffers from a rare disorder that has given her an enhanced sense of smell.
She noticed that her late husband, Les, developed a different odor at age 33 — about 12 years before he was diagnosed with the disease — which caused progressive damage to parts of his brain over the years.
Mrs Milne, dubbed the ‘woman who can smell Parkinson’s’, described a ‘musky’ smell that was different from his normal smell.
Her observations intrigued scientists, who decided to study what she could smell and whether it could be used to help identify people with neurological disorders.
Years later, academics at the University of Manchester have made a breakthrough by developing a test that can identify Parkinson’s patients using a simple cotton swab that runs along the back of the neck.
Possible NHS launch
Researchers can examine samples to identify disease-related molecules to help diagnose whether someone has the disease.
While still in the early stages of research, scientists are excited about the prospect of the NHS being able to deploy a simple test for the disease.
There is currently no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease, which can be diagnosed based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history.
If the new skin swab is successful outside laboratory conditions, it could be rolled out to enable faster diagnosis.
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Mrs Milne said it was “unacceptable” for Parkinson’s patients to have such severe nerve damage at the time of diagnosis.
“I think it has to be caught earlier — like cancer and diabetes,” she said. “Earlier diagnosis means more effective treatment and better lifestyles for people.”
“Exercise and dietary changes have been found to make a significant difference,” she added.
She said her former doctor husband was “determined” to find the right researchers to study the link between smell and Parkinson’s, and they approached Dr Tilo Kunath of the University of Edinburgh in 2012.
Dr Kunath worked with Professor Perdita Barran to examine Mrs Milne’s sense of smell.
Scientists believe the odor may be caused by chemical changes in the skin’s oil, called sebum, triggered by the disease.
In their initial work, they asked Mrs Milne to smell the T-shirts worn by Parkinson’s and non-Parkinson’s patients.
Mrs Milne correctly identified t-shirts worn by Parkinson’s patients, but also said a person in a population without Parkinson’s smelled like the disease – eight months after the person wearing the t-shirt was diagnosed with the disease Has Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers hope the discovery will lead to the development of a test to detect Parkinson’s, assuming that if they can identify unique chemical signatures in the skin that are associated with Parkinson’s, they may eventually be able to diagnose the condition with a simple skin swab.
In 2019, researchers at the University of Manchester, led by Professor Barran, announced that they had identified a molecule linked to the disease found in skin swabs.
Now, scientists have used this information to develop a test.
Correct treatment faster
These tests have been successfully performed in research laboratories, and they are being evaluated for use in a hospital setting.
If successful, the test could be used in the NHS, so GPs can recommend patients for Parkinson’s testing.
The findings, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, detail how sebum can be analyzed using mass spectrometry, a method of weighing molecules, to identify disease.
Some molecules are only present in people with Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers compared swabs from 79 Parkinson’s patients with 71 healthy controls.
More than 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease, including musicians Ozzy Osborncomedian Sir Billy Connolly and actor Michael J. Foxhe was diagnosed at the age of 29.
Degenerative diseases are the fastest growing neurological diseases in the world. It has a variety of symptoms, including tremors — especially in the hands — Gait and balance problemsslowness and extreme stiffness of the arms and legs.
Professor Barran said there was currently no cure, but a confirmatory diagnosis would allow patients to get the right treatment and medication faster.
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She said exercise and nutritional changes would also be recommended, but “most critically, this will allow them to be diagnosed and to really know what’s wrong with them”.
She added: “There are currently around 18,000 people in Greater Manchester waiting for a neurology consultation and it will take up to two years to clear the list without anyone joining.
“10-15% of them are suspected Parkinson’s disease. Our test will be able to tell if they have Parkinson’s disease and allow them to be referred to the appropriate specialist.
“So at the moment, we’re talking about being able to refer people to the right major in a timely manner, and that’s going to be transformative.”
Can she smell other diseases?
Mrs Milne is now working with scientists around the world to see if she can smell cancer and other diseases such as tuberculosis (TB).
“I have to go shopping very early or late because of people’s fragrances, and I can’t get into the chemical aisle of the supermarket, so yeah, it’s a curse at times, but I’ve also been to Tanzania and researched tuberculosis and cancer research in the U.S.— Just preliminary work.
“So it’s a curse and a benefit.”
She said she could sometimes smell people with Parkinson’s disease in the supermarket or while walking down the street, but medical ethicists told her she couldn’t tell them.
“Which GP would accept a man or a woman walking in and saying ‘the woman who smelled Parkinson’s told me I had it’? Maybe in the future, but not now.”