A British woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease has helped scientists discover 10 molecules that could lead to the first diagnostic test for the condition.
Researchers at Manchester University first began to believe Parkinson’s might have a discernible odour when Joy Milne of Perth, Scotland, claimed she detected a change in the odour of her husband, Les, six years before he was diagnosed with the condition.
Milne, 67, claimed her husband’s smell changed subtly years before any difficulty with movement started to emerge. Mr Milne died in 2015 aged 65.
When researchers conducted tests with Milne, they found she was able to identify people living with Parkinson’s from people without the condition by smelling skin swabs taken from both groups.
In one case, Milne identified an individual with Parkinson’s who, at the time, had not been diagnosed with the condition, because they had no symptoms.
Now scientists have identified the 10 molecules which appear in high concentration on the skin swabs from Parkinson’s patients.
For all the serendipity, it was Joy and Les who were absolutely convinced that what she could smell would be something that could be used in a clinical context and so now we are beginning to do that
Professor Perdita Barran, of Manchester University, said: “It is very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson’s. It wouldn’t have happened without Joy.
“For all the serendipity, it was Joy and Les who were absolutely convinced that what she could smell would be something that could be used in a clinical context and so now we are beginning to do that.”
Parkinson’s affects one in every 500 people in the UK — around 127,000 in total — and is caused by the deterioration of neurons in a certain part of the brain. People with the condition are left struggling to move and even speak.
There is currently no definitive test and symptoms typically only start to show once more than half of the relevant nerve cells in the brain have already been lost.
Not only is the delay in diagnosis upsetting for people, it also prevents them starting treatment to help with their symptoms.
Mrs Milne was also tested at Edinburgh University, where Dr. Tilo Kunath confirmed her ability to detect Parkinson’s simply from smell alone.
She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson’s before he knew; before anybody knew
Joy was given 12 unmarked t-shirts to smell — six worn by Parkinson’s patients and six worn by volunteers without the disease — and correctly identified those with the disease.
“She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson’s before he knew; before anybody knew,” said Kunath.
If the molecules are correctly identified then dogs could be trained to sniff out the disease and doctors could use the mass spectrometry analytical technique.
The BBC has made a documentary about Milne’s story. The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s is now available on iPlayer.