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‘NoseToDiagnose’ Parkinson’s research wins accolade

A pioneering research project into Parkinson’s disease has been honoured with a major award from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

The NoseToDiagnose team at The University of Manchester and Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust have shown it is possible to identify Parkinson’s disease based on compounds found on the surface of skin. The findings offer hope that a pioneering new test could be developed to diagnose the degenerative condition through a simple painless skin swab.

The work has won the RSC’s 2021 Analytical Division Horizon Prize: Robert Boyle Prize for Analytical Science.

Parkinson’s disease is a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years, resulting in a range of physical and psychological symptoms. This team have developed a technique which works by analysing compounds found in sebum (the oily substance that coats and protects the skin) to identify changes in people with Parkinson’s disease.

The work began after retired nurse Joy Milne, whose husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 45, realised she could use her sense of smell to distinguish Parkinson’s in individuals by detecting a distinctive “musky” odour, even before symptoms emerge in those affected.

With high resolution mass spectrometry, the team were able to profile the complex chemical signature in sebum of people with Parkinson’s and show subtle but fundamental changes as the condition progresses. These promising results could lead to a definitive ‘world first’ test to diagnose Parkinson’s accurately, speedily and cost effectively. The skin swab could also provide an important new tool in clinical studies, by helping researchers measure whether new, experimental treatments are able to slow, stop or reverse the progression of Parkinson’s.

The work is led by Professor Perdita Barran, Chair of Mass Spectrometry and Director of the University’s Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative Mass Spectrometry, and its clinical lead is Professor Monty Silverdale, Consultant Neurologist and MAHSC Honorary Clinical Chair, Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust and The University of Manchester, working with Neurology Registrar Sze Lim. (Prof Silverdale and Dr Lim pictured above).

Professor Silverdale said: “This research study means we are a step closer to the possibility of using a simple cheap skin swab as an aid to PD diagnosis. Clinical examination is only around 75% accurate when patients first present with mobility issues. Even then the disease process is known to already be very advanced. Currently available tests such as DAT scans are very expensive and not widely available.

“Our work also suggests that a simple skin swab may help us gain further insight into the neurodegenerative process in PD.

“Looking ahead, we have never really used sebum as a diagnostic biofluid before and the possibilities – not just for PD but also other conditions – are enormous.”

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