New test to detect Parkinson’s in just three minutes ‘has potential to improve diagnosis’

The NHS says no test “can conclusively show that you have Parkinson’s disease” and that a diagnosis will be based “on your symptoms, medical history and a detailed physical examination”. However, if the results of a new study are replicated, that could be about to change. Published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers at the University of Manchester believe they have developed a test for the neurodegenerative disease which affects 145,000 people in the UK.

How does the test work?

The test works by taking swabs from a patient’s back that collect samples of an oily secretion called sebum that comes from sebaceous glands under the skin.

Participants who took part in the study had their samples taken from their upper backs and tested by scientists using a spectrometer; from these swabs, it took only three minutes for Parkinson’s disease to be diagnosed.

The study’s lead author, Professor Monty Silverdale, said: “This test has the potential to significantly improve the diagnosis and management of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Of the results from the swabs in question, Dr Depanjan Sarkar said: “When we do this, we find over 4,000 unique compounds of which 5,000 are different between people with Parkinson’s disease and control participants.”

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Meanwhile, Professor Perdita Barran, study leader, said the test would be “transformative”. She added: “At the moment we have developed it in a research laboratory and are now working with colleagues in hospital testing laboratories to transfer our test to them so that it can work in an NHS environment.

“We hope within two years to be able to start testing people in the Manchester area.”

Responding to the study, Parkinson’s UK research manager Becky Port said: ‘The prospect that there may be a way to diagnose the disease which takes just minutes and does not require tests or of invasive samples is very exciting. .

“The tests can also allow us to monitor the progression of Parkinson’s disease, which means they could be used to support ongoing research into a cure, by measuring the effectiveness of treatments in trials.”


Port added: “So far, the work has been done in the lab, comparing sebum samples from people known to have Parkinson’s disease with those who don’t.”

Therefore, the next step is to move research into clinical trials. On this, Port said, “That’s how we’ll know if we have a definitive diagnostic test.”

How was the trial?

The test wasn’t a whim, rather it was inspired by the story of a woman who discovered she could smell a different body odor in people with the condition.

The woman, a Joy Milne from Scotland, was able to smell her husband, Les, who died of the disease aged 72.

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Joy said: “He had this rather nasty musty smell, especially around his shoulders and the back of his neck, and his skin had definitely changed.” It was only after attending a Parkinson’s disease support group that Joy said she noticed the same smell in other patients.

While the test may change the lives of future patients, it cannot eliminate what might have been for Joy and Les.

She said: “We would have spent more time with the family. We would have traveled more. If we had known earlier, this might have explained the mood swings and depression.

On the night of her death, her husband reportedly told her to investigate her sense of smell as he thought it might make a difference; with prior diagnoses potentially on the horizon for thousands of patients, that could end up being the case.

The main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

There are three main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: • Tremors
• The slowness of the movements
• Muscular stiffness.

Other physical symptoms that may occur are:
• Balance problems
• Loss of smell
• Nerve pain
• Problems with urination
• Constipation
• Erectile dysfunction in men
• Sexual dysfunction in women
• Dizziness, blurred vision or fainting
• Excessive sweating
• Difficulties swallowing
• Excessive saliva
• Sleep problems.

Parkinson’s disease can also cause psychological symptoms that add to the distress of the patient and their family.

Once diagnosed, several conditions are available to patients, including physiotherapy, medication to relieve some of the symptoms, and surgery in some cases, which will be part of a care plan for each affected patient.

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