There is currently no definitive test for diagnosing Parkinson’s. Recently, however, researchers have been investigating a waxy substance on our skin (called sebum) as a possible way of determining who does or does not have Parkinson’s. They have recently published the results of their research, which is generating a lot of interest in the possibility of a diagnostic marker for Parkinson’s.

The background:

In 2012, Joy Milne and her husband attended a Parkinson’s support group meeting in Scotland, and Joy noticed something very interesting. Everyone with Parkinson’s had the same body odour as her husband, who had been diagnosed in 1996. At the meeting, a research scientist named Dr Tilo Kunath of Edinburgh University was presenting his work and at the end of the presentation, Joy asked him why people with Parkinson’s have the same body odour? Intrigued by the question, Dr Kunath proposed that they conduct a blinded test to assess Joy’s ability to smell Parkinson’s. She passed the test pin-pointing all but one (who was later diagnosed) and her extraordinary ability opened a whole new area of Parkinson’s research.

To determine exactly what Joy was detecting in the “smell of Parkinson’s”, Prof Perdita Barran of University of Manchester set about determining exactly what Joy was detecting by swabbing the skin of people with and without Parkinson’s, and breaking down the sebum swab samples into the constituent molecules. This allowed Prof. Barran’s team to accurately differentiate between people with and without Parkinson’s; the results of their work was published in 2019.

More recently, Joy, Prof Barran and their team have validated their initial results in a larger follow up study, in which they were able to improve the accuracy in determining Parkinson’s to 85%.

In addition, they have differentiated the molecules in the sebum samples to understand more about the biology of Parkinson’s. Their analyses have indicated changes in lipid (fat) processing and mitochondrial function in people with Parkinson’s. Issues with mitochondria (the energy processing part of cells) are already recognised as a feature of Parkinson’s; this discovery is particularly interesting.

Prof. Barran’s research is particularly interesting because it raises the possibility of developing a non-invasive biological test for Parkinson’s that could help to more accurately diagnose people with Parkinson’s. The research team are now actively exploring how to take procedure forward.

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