Parkinson’s disease researchers are starting a £ ½M+ project to test if using a simple skin swab can diagnose the condition well before most major symptoms are usually seen.
The project, supported by the Michael J Fox Foundation, will build on previous work initiated by retired nurse Joy Milne who noticed a change in her husband’s body odour years before his clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Joy noticed the same distinctive odour was associated with other people with the condition and linked it to onset of the disease.
In recent years researchers at The University of Manchester and Northern Care Alliance NHS Foundation Trust have developed a diagnostic platform that is able to classify the condition from sebum samples – taken by simple non-invasive sampling of skin from the upper back – with up to 90% accuracy.
They are now working with colleagues at Harvard University to test whether they can use the simple skin swab test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease at a much earlier stage, when it will be more amenable to treatment.
The Manchester team is led by Professor of Mass Spectrometry Perdita Barran, Lecturer in Analytical & Measurement Science Dr Drupad Trivedi, and clinical lead Professor Monty Silverdale, a Consultant Neurologist at Salford Royal and Parkinson’s disease theme lead at the Geoffrey Jefferson Brain Research Centre. He said: “Parkinson’s develops when cells in the brain stop working properly, resulting in them not producing a chemical called dopamine. There’s currently no simple test for Parkinson’s disease and patients will usually only be referred to specialists when they develop motor problems – tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement.
“But by the time motor symptoms appear, up to 70% of the dopamine producing neurons in the brain will have been lost.
“It’s well recognised that Parkinson’s disease has an early stage that precedes mobility problems by more than 10 years. During this time, typical symptoms include constipation, a reduced sense of smell and a sleep disorder where people start acting out their dreams while asleep (REM sleep behaviour disorder).
“Although these symptoms are fairly common in themselves, developing them all together is highly suggestive of early stage Parkinson’s.”
He added: “We are collaborating with a team from Harvard utilising the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS). These are detailed epidemiological studies of almost 200,000 participants. Within these studies, the team have identified more than 200 people likely to be in the early phase of Parkinson’s. We will determine whether our skin swab test – using high high resolution mass spectrometry to profile the complex chemical signature in sebum of people with Parkinson’s – is able to confirm a diagnosis of at a much earlier point.”