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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Wilcox

Smelling Parkinson’s: 3 Minute Swabs to Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease

This may be one of the wildest stories coming out of high impact Parkinson’s research, and it all revolves around Joy Milne, the woman who can smell Parkinson’s Disease. She has a condition called hereditary hyperosmia which gives her a heightened sense of smell. She first began to notice a strange musty smell on her husband after they had been married for 10 years. She was convinced that he wasn’t showering often enough. However, no matter how many showers he took, the smell didn’t go away.


Eventually he began developing neurological problems and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She accompanied him to support groups and appointments, and immediately noticed the same smell in all the other people that were diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She began working with doctors to help diagnose the condition as well as with scientists to develop the first skin swab diagnosis for Parkinson’s.


On September 7th, 2022 the Journal of the American Chemical Society published an article detailing the science behind the new skin swab. Overall the process is fairly simple. First, the sebum, or skin oil, is swabbed on the mid-back with a Q-tip. It is then transferred to paper that is sprayed with a solvent. The sebum separation allows for specific fats or lipids to be analyzed. The group uses mass spectrometry to compare the charges to the mass of a specific sample. This allows them to determine the molecular weight of all of the components included in the sample. It is an easy distribution to read because there are varying heights of peaks for different compositions of material. The pattern that appears for Parkinson’s Disease is extremely distinctive with characteristic peak heights. It is also a fast analysis process that will allow many people to be diagnosed quickly for a condition that before didn't have any clear diagnostic test, let alone a fast one.


Resources

Osborne, M. (2022, September 12). Woman who can smell parkinson's helps develop a skin swab diagnostic test. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/woman-who-can-smell-parkinsons-helps-develop-a-skin-swab-diagnostic-test-180980741/

Sarkar, D., Sinclair, E., Lim, S. H., Walton-Doyle, C., Jafri, K., Milne, J., Vissers, J. P. C., Richardson, K., Trivedi, D. K., Silverdale, M., & Barran, P. (2022). Paper spray ionization ion mobility mass spectrometry of sebum classifies biomarker classes for the diagnosis of parkinson’s disease. JACS Au, 2(9), 2013–2022. https://doi.org/10.1021/jacsau.2c00300



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