New discovery means Parkinson’s could be diagnosed with swab in just 3 minutes: ScienceAlert

When it comes to developing treatments and cures for disease, being able to diagnose a condition early and accurately makes a huge difference – and scientists have now developed a fast, reliable method of identifying people with Parkinson’s.

The test can be performed in just 3 minutes after taking a skin swab. The swab is analyzed for changes in the chemical mix of sebum, a natural waxy oil produced by the skin that has previously been linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Currently, there is no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease — experts look at symptoms, medical history, the results of a lengthy physical exam, and in some cases, a brain scan to diagnose the condition.

“This test has the potential to massively improve the diagnosis and management of people with Parkinson’s disease,” says neurologist Monty Silverdale from the University of Manchester in the UK.

The new test is based on work the researchers did with Scotland’s Joy Milne, who has hereditary hyperosmosis – an increased sensitivity to smells.

After noticing her husband developing a muskier odor many years before he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Milne discovered she could smell the signs of the disease in people.

This led the team to sebum, which is linked to the endocrine system and keeps the skin hydrated. In 2019, some of the same researchers identified how the chemical mix of sebum changed in a person when Parkinson’s disease developed.

Now we have a test based on this shift in biomarkers. Swabs taken at a clinic are sent to a laboratory, where they are analyzed by mass spectrometry to look at their molecular composition. For the purposes of the present study, samples from 79 people with Parkinson’s disease were compared with samples from 71 people without the disease.

Joy Milne is assisting with the research. (University of Manchester)

“When we do this, we find more than 4,000 unique compounds of which 500 are different between people with Parkinson’s disease compared to control participants,” says chemist Depanjan Sarkar from the University of Manchester.

That the test is non-invasive and so quick to produce results are positive signs, although scientists still need to show they can scale up the process and make it work outside of the lab.

Down the road, the researchers say, other diseases and conditions could be diagnosed through sebum analysis – although it’s not yet entirely clear why the onset of Parkinson’s disease should cause these changes in the production of the fluid.

Parkinson’s is currently the fastest growing neurological disease in existence and this growth is set to continue. While scientists are working hard to find a cure, there are ways to slow it down and manage it – and that’s where early diagnosis can be so important.

“We are extremely excited about these results which bring us closer to making a diagnostic test for Parkinson’s that could be used in the clinic,” says chemist Perdita Barran from the University of Manchester.

The research has been published in Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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