Working out what’s wrong with someone can be a complex challenge for doctors. But what if they could diagnose a disease simply from a person’s smell? Well, a woman named Joy Milne has the superpower of sniffing out Parkinson’s disease, and it’s helping researchers develop the first-ever diagnostic test.
Caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain area responsible for dopamine production, Parkinson’s disease can be a crippling condition. It can lead to involuntary tremors, slow movement, and stiff and inflexible muscles. It can also cause a range of other symptoms, from depression and anxiety to insomnia and memory loss. At the moment there is no cure, and diagnosis is based on the observation of symptoms alone.
We first learned that Joy Milne could smell Parkinson’s a few years back. Her husband, Les, had the disease, and she noticed a change in his scent years before his diagnosis. She then joined the charity Parkinson’s UK, only to discover that other sufferers of the condition shared his unique smell.
She shared her findings with scientists, prompting researchers at the University of Edinburgh to find out more. They gave her 12 T-shirts to smell – six had been worn by Parkinson’s sufferers and six worn by controls. She correctly identified the six people who had Parkinson’s, but also noticed the scent on the T-shirt from one of the controls. Amazingly, just a few months later, he too was diagnosed with the disease.
"She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson's before he knew, before anybody knew,” Edinburgh University's Dr Tilo Kunath told BBC News.
"So then I really started to believe her, that she could really detect Parkinson's simply by odour that was transferred on to a shirt that the person with Parkinson's was wearing."
Scent is produced by chemical molecules, so now scientists from the University of Manchester have been investigating what exact molecules might result in the Parkinson’s “smell”. Using a technique called mass spectrometry, the team have identified 10 molecules that are unique to those suffering from Parkinson’s.
"It is very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson's,” said research leader Professor Perdita Barran. “It wouldn't have happened without Joy.”
It’s hoped that this increased knowledge of the individual molecules associated with Parkinson’s will lead to the first-ever diagnostic test. Thanks to Joy, doctors might be able to identify whether a person has Parkinson’s using mass spectrometry, or dogs could use their powerful noses to sniff out the disease, as they can with cancer.
"For all the serendipity, 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," said Barran.
Although right now there's no cure, finding out whether someone has Parkinson's early on could allow for better management of symptoms through medication and physiotherapy, giving those living with the disease a better quality of life.
If you're based in the UK and want to find out more about Joy, The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's is currently available on BBC iPlayer.