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We are closer to rapid tests to detect Parkinson’s. Thanks to the nose of a 72-year-old Scotswoman

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Joy Milne is not a well-known scientist, but a 72-year-old Scottish retiree. Despite this, she has been key in designing a test that could help us in the future to detect Parkinson’s disease much earlier. Milne has, yes, a very specific ability: a super-developed sense of smell.

A three minute test.
A group of British researchers has made progress in creating a rapid test for the detection of Parkinson’s. The results of the first trials have been positive and have been published in the form of an article in the journal Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The test is not invasive, it is based on the analysis of the sebum that we exude from our skin. The process requires taking a sample of the secretions of our skin through cotton. This sample is then analyzed through mass spectrometry. Since the sample is taken, the process requires only three minutes.

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In a press release, Depanjan Sarkar, who headed the article, explained the process: “This tallow is transferred to a paper (…), we add a drop of solvent, apply a voltage and this transfers the tallow compounds to the spectrometer of masses. When we do this we find more than 4,000 unique compounds, of which 500 are different between Parkinson’s patients compared to control participants.

First trials.
The test was put to the test in an experiment involving 150 participants, an experimental group with 79 Parkinson’s patients and a control group with the remaining 71. There are still many trials to validate these first results, but it can be considered that the first step on this path has been taken.

The team and the University of Manchester have launched a company to continue the development of these diagnostic tests.

Milne’s story.
But without a doubt the most unique part of this whole journey has been to reach it. The key lies in the hereditary hyperosmia of Joy Milne, a Scottish woman with a specially developed sense of smell.

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Milne found that she was able to identify the nuances in the scent given off by people with Parkinson’s disease after her husband’s diagnosis. Milne had noticed in the previous years a change in the scent that her husband gave off.

From the nose to the laboratory.
Thanks to this strange circumstance, Milne and the rest of the team in charge of developing this new diagnostic technique. However, transforming Milne’s ability into a test that can be performed in a laboratory required additional work.

Perdita Barran, another of the researchers involved in the work, then explained to the BBC how they designed experiments to replicate with a spectrometer what Milne’s nose was capable of doing by itself when detecting the olfactory traces of people suffering from the disease.

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These first steps were also published in the form of several articles in magazines such as Nature Communications Y ACS Central Science.

To flower of skin.
Sebum is an oily secretion of our skin, odorless by itself. The sebaceous glands are linked to the endocrine system and experts were already aware of a correlation between Parkinson’s disease and this biological function. Now we are a little closer to being able to exploit it.

A difficult disease to fight.
Although we are still far from a cure for this disease, achieving a reliable diagnostic system is a step that cannot be underestimated. Today there is no definitive diagnostic test to identify this disease. This diagnosis is made based on psychological evaluations, physical examinations and scans that allow other ailments with similar symptoms to be ruled out.

Its treatment is equally difficult, and it is mainly focused on fighting the symptoms that it is causing through physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Added to this are some medications that can help fight symptoms such as the characteristic tremors associated with this disease.

In recent years, the surgical option has been gaining ground, although its development is still very limited. This option is based on deep brain stimulation (DBS), but this is not an option for all patients.

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