The Daily Telegraph

Smell test shown to identify Parkinson’s

Woman who sniffed out husband’s condition inspired study to develop diagnostic test for disease

- By India Mctaggart

A PARKINSON’S test has been developed after scientists were able to harness the power of a woman who can sniff out the disease.

The test has been years in the making after researcher­s at Manchester University learnt that Joy Milne of Perth, Scotland, could smell the condition. The academics first began to believe Parkinson’s might have a discernibl­e smell when Mrs Milne claimed she detected a change in the odour of her husband, Les, six years before he was diagnosed with the condition.

Mrs Milne, 72, said that her husband’s smell changed subtly to a “musky” aroma years before any difficulty with movement started to emerge. Mr Milne died in 2015 aged 65.

When researcher­s conducted tests with Mrs Milne, they found she was able to distinguis­h people with Parkinson’s from people without the condition just by smelling the T-shirts they had worn.

She also identified that one T-shirt from the group of people without the condition smelled like the disease, and eight months later the individual wearing it was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Now academics at the University of Manchester have made a breakthrou­gh by developing a test that can identify people with the condition by running a cotton bud along the back of the neck.

Researcher­s can examine the sample to identify molecules linked to the condition to help diagnose whether someone has the disease.

Mrs Milne has a rare condition that gives her a heightened sense of smell. She is now working with scientists around the world to see if she can smell other diseases including cancer and tuberculos­is.

She described her sense of smell as “a curse and a benefit,” saying that she can sometimes smell people who have Parkinson’s in the supermarke­t or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists she cannot tell them.

“Which GP would accept a man or a woman walking in saying, ‘the woman who smells Parkinson’s has told me I have it’? Maybe in the future but not now,” she added.

While still in the early phases of research, scientists are excited at the prospect of the NHS being able to use a simple test to diagnose Parkinson’s.

There is currently no definitive test for the disease, with diagnosis 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 achieve faster diagnosis.

Mrs Milne said it was “not acceptable” that people with Parkinson’s had such high degrees of neurologic­al damage at the time of diagnosis, adding: “I think it has to be detected far earlier – the same as cancer and diabetes, earlier diagnosis means far more efficient treatment and a better lifestyle for people.

“It has been found that exercise and change of diet can make a phenomenal difference.”

She said her husband, a former doctor, was “determined” to find the right researcher to examine the link between odour and Parkinson’s and they sought out Dr Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh in 2012.

Dr Kunath teamed up with Prof Perdita Barran to examine Mrs Milne’s sense of smell.

The scientists believe that the scent may be caused by a chemical change in skin oil, known as sebum, that is triggered by the disease.

The findings, which have been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, detail how sebum can be analysed with mass spectromet­ry – a method which weighs molecules – to identify the disease.

Prof Barran said: “At the moment, there are no cures for Parkinson’s, but a confirmato­ry diagnostic would allow them to get the right treatment that will help to alleviate their symptoms.”

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