The woman who smells Parkinson's allowed the development of the first swab test

The woman who smells Parkinson’s allowed the development of the first swab test

Capable of detecting the disease in just three minutes, the new method was inspired by Mrs. Joy Milne, a retired nurse who discovered she could sense Parkinson’s through smell.

Ms. Joy Milne smelling a sample. With her some researchers from the University of Manchester / Credit: University of Manchester

The incredible story of Joy Milne, a retired Scottish nurse who a few years ago discovered she could smell Parkinson’s disease on people’s skin, has led to a breakthrough in the diagnosis of this disease. Her hereditary hyperosmia – a greater sensitivity to odors – which in the past allowed the woman to “smell” her husband’s Parkinson’s 12 years before diagnosis, was in fact used by researchers at the University of Manchester to develop the first swab test. able to detect this neurodegenerative disease in just three minutes.

The new method, the researchers explained, was actually born from Milne’s observations, which allowed them to understand that Parkinson’s has a distinct odor, which is stronger on the skin of the back, where it is less often washed off. The woman described the smell as a trace “rather unpleasant, mold-like” specially “around the shoulders and on the back of the neck”, Directing researchers to analyze the composition of the sebum, or the mixture of different lipids secreted by the sebaceous glands on the skin, starting from samples collected with cotton swabs from the upper back of patients and healthy subjects.

Impaired sebum production is a well-known feature of Parkinson’s disease, but analysis of the samples revealed that high molecular weight lipids (> 600 Dalton) they differ significantly in the patients’ sebum compared to the control group. In particular, as detailed in the study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Societythe researchers found that high molecular weight lipids are substantially more active in people with Parkinson’s disease.

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Differences in sebum samples from patients with Parkinson's (PD samples) and healthy subjects (control samples) / Credit: JACS

Differences in sebum samples from patients with Parkinson’s (PD samples) and healthy subjects (control samples) / Credit: JACS

For the analysis, the researchers involved a group of 79 people with Parkinson’s and a healthy control group of 71 people. “The sebum was transferred from the sample pad onto the filter paper, which we then cut into a triangle, to which we added a drop of solvent and applied a tension – explained Dr Depanjan Sarkar of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology and lead author of the study -. In doing so we transfer the compounds from the sebum to the mass spectrometer, finding more than 4000 compounds, 500 of which are different among people with Parkinson’s with respect to the participants in the control“.

To validate the results, before a diagnostic test can be used in clinics or family doctors, further studies will be needed, although Professor Perdita Barran, who led the research, said that the next step in setting up a confirmatory test will still represent a “turning point” in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. “We have currently developed it in a research laboratory and are now working with colleagues in hospital analytical laboratories to transfer our test to them, so that it can work within a hospital setting. – Barran specified -. We hope within two years of being able to start to test people in the Manchester area“.


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