Skin odour could lead to early diagnosis of Parkinson’s

A study has been launched to identify small molecules secreted by the skin believed to emit a subtle but unique scent in people in the early stages of Parkinson’s.

Joy Milne (L) and Perdita Barran (R)

Researchers believe that Parkinson’s may affect a change in the sebum of sufferers that results in a unique subtle odour on the skin detectable by people with an acute sense of smell. This study was prompted by a “super-smeller” from Scotland1 who was able to identify Parkinson’s just from t-shirts people had slept in.

The charity Parkinson’s UK is now funding researchers at Manchester, Edinburgh and London to study around 200 people with and without Parkinson’s. They hope to verify findings from a pilot study conducted by the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh involving 24 people, which suggested that Parkinson’s can be identified by odour alone.

One in 500 people in the UK have Parkinson’s - which can leave people struggling to walk, speak and sleep, and has no cure, and no definitive diagnostic test. 127,000 people in the UK live with the condition and 7.5 million worldwide.

Professor Perdita Barran and her team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) will use state-of-the-art mass spectrometry technology to analyse skin swabs taken from people with and without Parkinson’s. The research team will extract, analyse and identify the small molecule components taken from the skin to identify specific biomarkers found in Parkinson’s disease.

In parallel ‘human detectors’ drawn from individuals who have exceptional smelling abilities will be used. Both the analytical and the human approach will be used to grade identical samples that will hopefully pinpoint which molecular changes in the skin might be producing the unique odour found in Parkinson’s sufferers.

Professor Barran, leading the research at the MIB and working with neurologist Dr Monty Silverdale on the study, said:

“The sampling of the skin surface will provide a rich source of metabolites which we can mine to distinguish healthy patients from those in the early stages of Parkinson’s. We are excited to embark on this biomarker discovery project. It is hoped that these results could lead to the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test that may have the ability to diagnose early Parkinson’s – possibly even before physical symptoms occur.”

Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, which is funding the study, said:

“Funding pioneering studies like this has the potential to throw Parkinson’s in a completely new light.

“It’s very early days in the research, but if it’s proved there is a unique odour associated with Parkinson’s, particularly early on in the condition, it could have a huge impact. Not just on early diagnosis, but it would also make it a lot easier to identify people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop Parkinson’s, something no current drug can achieve.”

Enquiries about taking part in trials should be directed to: helpline@parkinsons.org.uk.

For more information on Parkinson’s UK research, and to donate, visit parkinsons.org.uk/research.

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