Widow who can smell Parkinson's allows scientists to develop new test that could diagnose disease quicker

7 September 2022, 08:57

Mrs Milne's hyper-sensitive smell has led to a test
Mrs Milne's hyper-sensitive smell has led to a test. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

A woman's incredible ability to smell Parkinson's disease has led to scientists to developing a new test for the condition.

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Joy Milne, 72, from Perth in Scotland, has a hyper-sensitive sense of smell and noticed how her late husband Les developed a different odour at 33 – 12 years before his diagnosis with Parkinson's. He died seven years ago.

She called it "musky" and distinct from how he normally smelled to her, which led to years-long research into whether it could be used to develop a test for the disease.

Experts at the University of Manchester have now developed a test that involves running a cotton bud along the back of a person's neck.

Researchers can then examine whether molecule linked to the disease was present in the sample and help diagnose if someone has it.

Scientists are excited about the prospect of the NHS being able to use such a simple and quicker way of testing for Parkinson's.

Mrs Milne can smell Parkinson's
Mrs Milne can smell Parkinson's. Picture: Alamy

For now, diagnoses have to be made off the back of symptoms and medical history.

"I think it has to be detected far earlier - the same as cancer and diabetes, earlier diagnosis means far more efficient treatment and a better lifestyle for people,” Mrs Milne said.

"It has been found that exercise and change of diet can make a phenomenal difference."

Parkinson’s destroys parts of the brain over the course of several years.

The change in smell could be caused by a chemical change in skin oil called sebum, which is brought on by the disease.

During studies, Mrs Milne was able to work out who had Parkinson’s by smelling t-shirts worn by people who have the disease and those who did not have it.

She said one of the shirts from the group that did not have Parkinson’s smelled like the disease and eight months after that person was diagnosed with the condition.

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Professor Perdita Barran, who led a research team at the University of Manchester, said: "At the moment, there are no cures for Parkinson's, but a confirmatory diagnostic would allow them to get the right treatment and get the drugs that will help to alleviate their symptoms.

"There would also be non-pharmaceutical interventions, including movement and also nutritional classes, which can really help. And I think most critically, it will allow them to have a confirmed diagnosis to actually know what's wrong with them."

She added: "Our test would be able to tell them whether they did or whether they didn't (have Parkinson's) and allow them to be referred to the right specialist.

"So at the moment, we're talking about being able to refer people in a timely manner to the right specialism and that will be transformative."

Mrs Milne is now being tested to see if she can smell diseases like cancer and tuberculosis.

She can sometimes smell people who have Parkinson's while in the supermarket or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists she cannot tell them.

"Which GP would accept a man or a woman walking in saying 'the woman who smells Parkinson's has told me I have it'? Maybe in the future but not now," she said.

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