Scientists move closer to developing ‘game-changing’ test to diagnose Parkinson’s

Research shows it’s possible to identify Parkinson’s based on compounds found on the surface of skin. The findings offer hope that the condition could be diagnosed through a simple swab test.

Scientists at The University of Manchester have developed a technique which works by analysing compounds found in sebum, the oily substance that coats and protects the skin, and identifying changes in people with Parkinson’s. 

This research was inspired by Joy Milne, who discovered she had the ability to ‘smell Parkinson’s’ following her husband’s diagnosis at the age of 45. 

Joy's discovery led to this groundbreaking research funded by Parkinson’s UK, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and The University of Manchester Innovation Factory. 

The team recruited 500 people with and without Parkinson’s. Samples of sebum were taken from their upper backs for analysis. Using different mass spectrometry methods, 10 chemical compounds in sebum were identified as elevated or reduced in people with Parkinson’s. This allows scientists to distinguish people with Parkinson’s with 85% accuracy.

Further analysis using high resolution mass spectrometry showed subtle but fundamental changes as the condition progresses.

This means this ‘world first’ testing strategy is not only useful in diagnosing Parkinson’s, but also in monitoring the development of the condition.

Professor Perdita Barran, Professor of Mass Spectrometry at The University of Manchester, said:

“We believe that our results are an extremely encouraging step towards tests that could be used to help diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s.

“Not only is the test quick, simple and painless but it should also be extremely cost-effective because it uses existing technology that is already widely available.

“We are now looking to take our findings forward to refine the test to improve accuracy even further and to take steps towards making this a test that can be used in the NHS and to develop more precise diagnostics and better treatment for this debilitating condition.”

The findings of this research are published in ACS Central Science and Nature Communications.

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Joy's story

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A polar bear can follow the scent of its mate from 100 miles away. An elephant can sniff out water from a 12 mile distance.

But Joy, a retired nurse from Scotland, has an even more impressive sense of smell. She can smell Parkinson’s before it’s diagnosed.