A grandmother who can sniff out Parkinson’s has helped scientists find ten tell-tale molecules that make up the disease.
Joy Milne, 67, noticed a change in her husband Les’s smell a decade before he was diagnosed with the disease.
Dubbed a ‘super-smeller’, the retired nurse is able to diagnose strangers who have the condition simply by sniffing their T-shirts.
Now scientists may have identified the odours she picks up, after finding ten molecules which appear in skin swabs from patients with Parkinson’s.
The results suggest that rare people like Mrs Milne, and perhaps sniffer dogs, might be able to detect Parkinson’s well before symptoms appear.
Professor Perdita Barran, head of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester where the breakthrough occurred, said: ‘It is very humbling to have this ability to help, to find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson’s. It wouldn’t have happened without Joy. You know, that’s the most important thing. It was Joy and Les who were absolutely convinced that what she could smell would be something that could be used in a clinical context, and so now we are beginning to do that.’
Parkinson’s affects one in 500 people, or about 127,000 across Britain. Parts of the brain become progressively damaged over the years, causing tremors and difficulties in movement and speech.
But there is currently no test for Parkinson’s, with doctors basing a diagnosis on symptoms. This is devastating for sufferers, amid evidence that earlier diagnosis may help preserve brain function, and slow the disease.
Mrs Milne, from Perth, Scotland, noticed a change in her consultant anaesthetist husband’s smell 30 years before he died aged 65, in 2015.
Speaking to the BBC, she said: ‘It was a new smell, I didn’t know what it was. I had not met it anywhere else, so it wasn’t in my memory. And I kept on thinking, “Goodness, this – this smell”. And I kept on saying to him, “But, you know, you’re not showering. What’s wrong? What are you doing?” And he became quite upset about it. So I just had to be quiet.’
She realised she could smell the illness in others when she attended a support group with Mr Milne.
Her talent was tested by Manchester University using mass spectrometry, which turns molecules into charged particles called ions to separate them, which allows them to be analysed. Mrs Milne was able to pick out five of the key Parkinson’s molecules discovered by the mass spectrometer machine, and the total of ten provide hope for future diagnosis.
It is now known that the protein found in the brain, forming the clumps which cause Parkinson’s, is also found on the skin.
There is also believed to be a smell from sebum – an oily substance secreted on the skin which could explain why Parkinson’s patients’ skin is more waxy.
The discovery follows tests by Edinburgh University which asked the widow to detect Parkinson’s by sniffing T-shirts. Mrs Milne, whose nose is described by Professor Barran as ‘somewhere between a human and a dog’, correctly identified T-shirts worn by Parkinson’s patients.
But astoundingly, in the same tests she detected the odour on a shirt worn by someone in the control group without Parkinson’s who was told three months later that he had the illness.
Dr Tilo Kunath, of the centre for regenerative medicine at Edinburgh, said: ‘This is a real validation of Joy’s ability to have found a unique chemical signature on the skin of Parkinson’s patients. This may completely change the way Parkinson’s disease is detected and monitored.’
Mrs Milne’s last promise to her husband was that she would investigate her special ability and how it might help others.
She added: ‘We were married for 42 years when he died. So I don’t want other families to have the same experience. I want relief for them. I want to see a better understanding within medicine ... And the hope that with early diagnosis, there is going to be treatment.’
÷ The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s, was broadcast on BBC 1 Scotland last night and is now available on iPlayer.
© Daily Mail