A 3-minute test can help make the diagnosis

  • Parkinson’s disease is the most common neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s. It has no known cure.
  • Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed a new technique that can quickly and accurately identify Parkinson’s disease in its early stages.
  • Their non-invasive test takes just three minutes to examine sebum for certain biomarkers.
  • The researchers hope to scale up the production of their diagnostics to improve the early detection of the disease.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic and progressive movement disorder that affects nearly one million people in the United States. About 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s each year.

This condition develops when the brain does not produce enough dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, which also helps control movement and coordination.

Experts predict that growth will continue and expand to younger people. Such a grim reality makes early detection ever more urgent.

However, this has been difficult as PD shares symptoms with other neurological disorders.

Researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom say they have found a way to control skin secretions for PD. Their simple, three-minute process uses cotton swabs and mass spectrometry to discover hundreds of unique lipids associated with the disease.

They believe that “the identification of robust biomarkers to complement clinical diagnosis will accelerate treatment options.”

Details of this discovery appear in JACS Oh, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

Currently, there is no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease. Health specialists assess symptoms, medical history and brain scans to arrive at a diagnosis.

Mark Frasier, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientific Officer of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In an April 2022 podcast, Dr. Phrases the diagnostic dilemma:

“[It] can be a very long journey […] to get a diagnosis, because Parkinson’s can look like many different things. And aging introduces many different complicating factors that may not be Parkinson’s. The way it is currently done and is typically in a [neurologist’s] office, they will perform tap tests and have people walk and assess their movements.”

“It is really up to the neurologist to make that diagnosis. And it is difficult because the symptoms wax and wane from day to day and even from hour to hour. It is often difficult for a neurologist to really assess these symptoms in a 20-minute visit,” he explained.

Increased production of sebum, an oily substance naturally found on all human skin, is a telltale symptom of Parkinson’s disease, first documented in 1927.

Biofluid analyses have revealed that the onset of PD can cause changes in its composition.

The present study is inspired by Joy Milnea Scottish woman and retired nurse with hereditary hyperosmia – unusual, increased sensitivity to smells. Earlier research reported that Milne noticed one day that her husband’s distinctive scent had changed before he showed any clinical symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Milne’s husband, Les, was eventually diagnosed with the disease more than a decade after Milne first discovered the smell. After the formal diagnosis, the pair met others in a Parkinson’s UK support group and Milne immediately noticed they had the same distinctive smell. It was only then that she linked the smell to PD. Les died in 2015.

Milne had since teamed up with researchers to further study her “super smelling” abilities and how this could help improve the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

Prof. Perdita Barran, Ph.D., who led this study at the University of Manchester, told the BBC that the potential for a diagnostic test for Parkinson’s disease would be “transformative” as there is currently no chemical test available. In the interview with the BBC, Prof Barran said the researchers are looking to collaborate with local hospital laboratories and implement the test in the Manchester area in the next two years.

The Manchester team recruited people from 27 clinics across the UK and collected 150 sebum samples from participants, including 79 samples from people with PD. The remaining 71 were used as controls from individuals without the disease.

The researchers rubbed the mid-back of subjects with medical cotton swabs to collect the skin’s oils. They then transported the samples to a facility until testing.

Next, chemists transferred tallow onto filter paper, which they cut into small triangles.

Adding solvent and applying voltage helped transfer the sebum components to a mass spectrometer.

The co-authors said: “Here we demonstrate the use of direct infusion of sebum from skin swabs using paper spray ionization combined with ion mobility mass spectrometry […] to determine the regulation of molecular classes of lipids in sebum that are diagnostic of PD.”

Ultimately, 4,200 unique features were discovered. Of these, 500 were different between people with PD compared to the control group.

Neurologist Prof. Monty Silverdale, Ph.D., the study’s clinical leader, noted, “This test has the potential to massively improve the diagnosis and treatment of people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Medical News Today discussed this research with Dr. Natalie Diaz, a neurologist at the Pacific Movements Disorder Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. She was not involved in the investigation.

Dr. Diaz noted that the Manchester researchers’ findings could indicate that their method can identify PD patients. But she said: “Unlike previous studies by this group, there is no clinical data available on the PD patients enrolled in this study to understand whether this rapid and inexpensive method is sensitive enough to identify PD patients in the early, untreated stage versus those without PD.”

She also mentioned, “Since no information is provided on how the diagnosis of PD was made, it is also unclear whether sebum as a biomarker would help differentiate patients with early PD versus other forms of degenerative parkinsonism.”

Dr. Diaz was impressed that testing sebum can be non-invasive and can be cost-effective. However, she wondered how its sensitivity and accuracy compared to current diagnostic tools.

Some individuals may produce less or more sebum, which affects test results.

Seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis affects about 5% of adults. This skin condition, commonly associated with PD, can lower sebum production.

The study’s authors acknowledged that sample collection efficiency could vary from person to person.

“We are extremely excited about these results, which bring us closer to creating a diagnostic test for Parkinson’s disease that can be used in the clinic,” said Dr. Barran in a press release.

Dr. Barran founded Sebomix, Ltd. to explore the use of sebum as a diagnostic tool for PD.

The Manchester researchers have partnered with Parkinson’s UK, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Royal Society to study sebum samples. According to a press release, their continued work has recruited more than 2,000 to date.

A 3-minute test can help make the diagnosis

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