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The woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease

Joy Milne
Joy Milne Image credit:

A woman with an extraordinary sense of smell is helping scientists to detect Parkinson's disease in its early stages.

Joy Milne (pictured above) could tell her late husband Les had the illness twelve years before he was diagnosed by doctors just by the way he smelt.

The retired nurse from Perth has helped researchers in Manchester to come up with a new way to detect Parkinson’s disease within three minutes using a swab.

If proven successful after further tests the method could be rolled out on the NHS across the country.

Joy, 72, told BBC News: "He had this musty rather unpleasant smell especially round his shoulders and the back of his neck and his skin had definitely changed.”

But she only linked the smell to Parkinson’s when Les was diagnosed and the couple met others living with the condition through support groups run by Parkinson’s UK who had the same distinctive scent.

Sharing this information with researchers at the University of Manchester the team have developed a skin-swab test which they believe is 95% accurate detecting people living with Parkinson’s in its early stages.

The swab collects sebum - the only substance found on skin - on patient’s backs, the part of the body where it is less often to be washed away.

Researchers compared results between 79 people with Parkinson’s and 71 people who did not have the illness.

Tests showed more than 4,000 unique compounds in the samples, 500 of which were different between people with Parkinson’s and the control group.

Prof Perdita Barran, who led the research, is adarmant if the method could be used by a GP it would be "transformative".

"At the moment we have developed it in a research lab and we are now working with colleagues in hospital analytical labs to transfer our test to them so that it can work within an NHS environment," she said.

"We are hoping within two years to be able to start to test people in the Manchester area."

James Jopling, the Scotland director of Parkinson's UK, sees the breakthrough changes lives of people living with the condition.

"Currently with no definitive test people have to wait months or years to be diagnosed so the fact that you could get the treatment and support you need and that researchers could begin new treatments is incredibly important," he said.

If Joy had known her husband was living with onset Parkinson’s the couple would have made more memories before his illness deteriorated.

"We would have spent more time with family," she said.

"We would have travelled more. If we had known earlier it might have explained the mood swings and depression."

The day before he died Les told his wife to investigate the connection between the smell and Parkinson’s.

Joy said he told her: "You must do this because it will make a difference."

There are over 40 symptoms of Parkinson's disease.