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Skin scent offers Parkinson’s hope

22 October 2015

Researchers are to investigate whether Parkinson’s disease can be diagnosed from skin swabs.

It is hoped that the study will one day lead to a new test to detect patients in the early stages of Parkinson’s and follow the progression of the condition.

The research was prompted by a woman, Joy Milne, who has an acute sense of smell. She approached Parkinson’s UK Senior Research Fellow Dr Tilo Kunath at one of his outreach events at CRM, organised specifically for people interested in Parkinson's research. At the event she mentioned she had noticed that people with Parkinson’s emit a unique, subtle odour. Researchers believe the scent may be caused by a chemical change in skin oil known as sebum that is triggered by the disease.

Although not directly related to Dr Tilo Kunath's main work on understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the degeneration of neurons during Parkinson’s disease, curiosity and a desire to help people affected by the disease led to a small pilot study with Prof Perdita Barran's group  from Manchester University where the woman correctly identified which people from a group of 24 had Parkinson’s. She did so by smelling T-shirts that they had worn for a day.

Dr Tilo Kunath said:

Our early results suggest that there may be a distinctive scent that is unique to people with Parkinson’s. If we can identify the molecules responsible for this, it could help us develop ways of detecting and monitoring the condition.

The charity Parkinson’s UK is funding a study at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh to identify the molecules in sebum that cause the odour. They also hope to pinpoint the molecular changes that occur in the skin to produce the smell.

If researchers can identify a unique chemical signature linked to Parkinson’s, they may eventually be able to diagnose the condition from skin swabs. Such a test could be carried out using machines similar to those used by airport security to detect traces of explosives. These emit puffs of air to capture scent particles from a person’s body that are quickly analysed. There is currently no definitive diagnostic test for Parkinson’s disease and there is no cure. Diagnosis is based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history and the results of simple mental and physical exercises.

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Jen Middleton
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