New Parkinson’s Test Smells Success

Parkinson’s disease affects millions of people all over the world. The degenerative condition causes characteristic tremors, trouble walking, and often comes with complications including dementia, depression, and anxiety.

One of the major challenges around Parkinson’s disease involves diagnosis. There’s no single, commonly-available test that can confirm or rule out the disease. It’s can cause particular frustration as the disease is most treatable in its early stages.

That may soon change, however. One woman identified that she seemingly had the ability to “smell” the disease in those affected, and is now working with scientists to develop a test for the condition.

Follow Your Nose

The human sense of smell, by and large, isn’t particularly impressive. It helps us enjoy the scent of fresh bread baking in an oven, or the aroma of freshly cut grass. However, as a tool for inspecting and learning about the world around us, it really comes up short.

Some of us, though, are more capable in the olfactory department than others. Joy Milne from Perth, Scotland, is one such person. She happened to detected a change in her partner’s characteristic smell, one day, and twelve years later, they were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The idea that someone could “smell” a difference with people with Parkinson’s disease is an easy one to test. When Milne eventually put the idea together that the different smell she noticed was perhaps related to her husbands condition, she quickly drew the interest of scientists. With the aid of her partner, a former doctor, she teamed up with researchers Dr. Tilo Kunath and Professor Perdita Barran to investigate further.

Anatomy of a hair follicle. (Public domain, NIH)

The suspicion was that the change in smell may have been due to a chemical difference in sebum, the oily substance the sebaceous glands excrete to the skin. A test was put together wherein Milne was to smell T-shirts worn by various people. Some of the participants had Parkinson’s disease, and some did not. Milne was able to correctly identify the shirts worn by those with the disease. She also detected the characteristic smell on a T-shirt belonging to someone from the group without Parkinson’s. Just eight months later, that individual was also diagnosed with the disease. It served as a resounding indication that there may be a detectable chemical signature of Parkinson’s disease.

After years of research, a group of researchers led by Barran have developed a simple test for the disease. A sample is taken by swabbing a cotton bud on the back of the neck. The sample is then analyzed for molecules linked to Parkinson’s disease. It serves as a straightforward clinical tool to help identify patients that may suffer from the condition.

The test works by identifying certain heavy-weight lipid molecules that are only found in people with Parkinson’s disease using mass spectrometry techniques. Currently in early stages of development, the test has been trialled in laboratory settings with success. It has the additional benefit that the swab technique is non-invasive.

Future Work

The next stage is to develop the sebum analysis technique into a simple standardized test that can be run in typical clinical settings, in hospitals and doctor’s clinics around the world. Having the test widely available could be key to early identification of the disease. Milne has demonstrated the ability to smell the change in sebum before clinical symptoms were evident; the test could thus theoretically do the same. Currently, diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in the UK can take months or years, thanks to the work involved and the backlog of patients in the system. A simple swab test could change that, getting patients to the right specialist help sooner rather than later.

Milne is continuing her work, teaming up with scientists to see if she can identify other diseases by smell. Prime candidates include tuberculosis and cancer. The latter of the two has been found to be detectable by dogs in some cases, so Milne’s own highly-capable nose may be able to achieve the same feat. She occasionally smells the characteristic Parkinson’s signature when out in public, too. However, she has been advised by medical ethics professionals that she cannot advise people of her findings. Milne notes that most general practitioners would discount a patient that came in for tests on the testimony of a woman that smelled that they had a disease, anyway.

The overall development of the swab test shows how effective science can be in testing extraordinary claims. When Milne claimed to have the ability to “smell” Parkinson’s disease, scientists were quickly able to devise a test that confirmed that was the case. From there, they were able to figure out what was happening at a low level, and turn it to real medical benefit.  That’s the benefit of the scientific method at work!

38 thoughts on “New Parkinson’s Test Smells Success

  1. Considering the state of American medicine, if someone said they smelled something odd with me, I would be inclined to believe them. Crap, I was just there, should investigated getting sniffed

  2. This woman gets tons of press coverage, but talk to any nurse that works in long term care, or family member of someone who has Parkinson’s and they’ll confirm that people who have the disease DEFINITELY have a smell. My father died of Parkinson’s and if he didn’t shower for a day it would knock a moose over. It’s like rancid deep fryer fat or something. I am certain most people can detect this smell.

    1. At the end of the day, she’s the person that got it investigated for early diagnosis.

      Some things that could be beneficial are just too “common knowledge” to get investigated. It usually takes a new set of eyes (or in this case, a new nose) to see them. I’m not going to begrudge her a little press, or perhaps some patent income from the test. I’m just glad the test is being created.

      1. Yep. There often cries of “But EVERYONE knows X!” after a paper is published, but gloss over that nobody bothered to rigorously test X and quantify its effects.

        It’s the difference between “Duh, everyone knows heavy things fall down!” and the foundations of the behaviour of gravity laid down in General Relativity that allow GPS to work with frame-dragging compensation. In this case, it’s taking “Duh, of COURSE we can smell sick people!” and turning it into a chemical test that can be performed independently of a ‘skilled smeller’.

  3. Smelling urine is an old school medical practice, pathology labs have made “modern” doctors ignorant of many of these sensory methods, but what do you do during a large societal disruption when the system breaks down? Do some research on the assumption that they were once widespread and well accepted as valid medical skills, then you will uncover more stories. Going with the “hey this is novel and special” angle for this story and you are blinkering yourself.

  4. in English, the word “they” can also be used to indicate a gender neutral singular tense. It’s not as common as “him” or “her”, but in this day of oversensitive people getting angry over every little perceived slight it has become more common.

  5. Indeed, whilst a good article, it did make me cringe how in one sentence it was ‘partner’ with ‘they’ then then next sentence it was ‘husband’ then the next ‘partner’. If you’re going to use one or the other then that’s perfectly fine, but please be consistent!

    It started to sound like there was a partner involved – research partner, financial partner? Then there was the husband involved somehow. Then a partner who used to be a doctor – was that the husband or?

    1. Using the same word repetitively is considered bad writing, as it’s boring. Using variations and synonyms keeps things a little more fresh, unless it’s an intrinsically boring text like law, where accuracy trumps legibility and fun.

  6. Other conditions can affect the smell of your sweat. Fruity may be diabetic ketoacidosis. If your sweat smells like maple syrup that could be one of a few different problems. Smell like flowers and you didn’t apply any deodorant? Ask a doctor. Looking at WbMD and other sites, such smells usually come along with some other symptoms.

    What would be an ideal Parkinson’s test would be a device that’s held against the skin then sucks in an air sample through a replaceable reactant capsule. Design it so that a color change indicates the possibility of Parkinson’s, no change is good/target compound not detected. The same capsule could be used to test several spots on the same patient. If it doesn’t change on any of them, pop it out into a trashcan, stuck the sucker into its cleansing station, then it’s ready for the next test.

  7. R/dogs has regular stories of people whose dogs reacted when sniffing them, and were diagnosed with something. A surprisingly good proportion of doctors take even an untrained dog’s word on it very seriously and send them for tests.

  8. This is why government-protected monopolies are bad — and the FDA is part of the protection racket. If an independent company develops a cure in a free market, the cure is economically superior for the consumers and the company can market to them.

    1. I mean I’m no fan of the FDA (took them almost a year to approve Covid vaccines), but without some oversight, quack “cures” will abound and more people will die of things like mercury and radium poisoning than will be helped by a totally free market.

  9. Agreed, one hundred percent. If anything, this kind of language will increase both misogyny and prejudice. People have different behaviours and orientations – so what?

    This language trend hides and stigmatizes legitimate differences among people, instead of acknowledging and normalizing them. It’s the societal equivalent of sticking fingers in ears and going ‘la-la-la’ rather than dealing with reality. Linguistic neutering and hand-waving-away of “sensitive” details comes across as awkward, ignorant, cowardly, and somehow ominous.

    I also suspect that a lot of it springs from virtue-signaling and/or going-along-to-get-along, rather than representing true tolerance and compassion.

    1. Sometimes it’s hard to work out if someone really is a blithering idiot, they’re playing one to immunize us all from stupidity, or they’re just trolling. This one has me totally bamboozled!

      The principle is pretty simple – if assigning a gender to someone doesn’t add value, don’t do it. It’s not important in the article that a ‘she’ smelled a ‘he’, so why draw the pointless distinction?

      Unless a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ are somehow superior to a ‘they’, then where’s the stigma? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that misogyny or prejudice are increased by NOT calling out the things via pronouns that generally trigger misogyny or prejudice.

      1. It is proper and correct grammar to identify a woman’s known spouse as “husband,” and to use the pronoun, “he,” when referring to him. It is woketardian insanity to claim otherwise.

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