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Woman’s sense of smell behind new Parkinson’s test

September 16, 2022

A Scottish woman’s hyper-sensitive sense of smell has proved invaluable in the development of a new test for Parkinson’s disease.

A Scottish woman’s hyper-sensitive sense of smell has proved invaluable in the development of a new test for Parkinson’s disease.

The test has been years in the making after academics realised that Joy Milne could smell the disease. The 72-year-old from Perth, Scotland, has a rare condition that gives her a heightened sense of smell.

She noticed that her late husband, Les, developed a different odour when he was 33 – 12 years before he was diagnosed with the disease.

Her observation piqued the interest of scientists who decided to research what she could smell and whether this could be harnessed to help identify people with the neurological condition.

Years later, academics at the University of Manchester have made a breakthrough by developing a test that can identify people with Parkinson’s disease using a simple cotton bud run along the back of the neck.

Researchers can examine the sample to identify molecules linked to the disease to help diagnose if someone has it.

Though still in the early phases of research, scientists are excited about the prospect of the NHS being able to deploy a simple test for the disease.

There is still no definitive test for Parkinson’s and diagnosis is based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history.

However, if the skin swab is successful outside laboratory conditions, it could be rolled out to achieve a faster diagnosis.

In their preliminary work, scientists asked Milne to smell T-shirts worn by people who had Parkinson’s and those who did not. She correctly identified the T-shirts worn by Parkinson’s patients but also said that one from the group of people without Parkinson’s smelled like the disease. Eight months later, that individual was diagnosed with the disease.

Researchers hoped the finding could lead to a test being developed to detect Parkinson’s, working under the assumption that, if they were able to identify a unique chemical signature in the skin linked to the disease, they may eventually be able to diagnose it from simple skin swabs.

In 2019, researchers at the University of Manchester announced they had identified molecules linked to the disease found in skin swabs. Scientists have now developed a test using this information.

The tests have been successfully conducted in research labs and scientists are assessing whether they can be used in hospital settings. If successful, the test could potentially be used in the NHS so GPs can refer patients for Parkinson’s tests.

Related: Lack of sleep linked to poor cognitive development

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