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New discovery means Parkinson’s can be diagnosed with a Pap smear in just 3 minutes

When it comes to developing treatments and possible cures for disease, diagnosing a condition early and accurately makes a huge difference – and scientists have now developed a fast, reliable method of identifying people with Parkinson’s disease.

The test can be performed in as little as 3 minutes after a skin swab is taken. The swab is analyzed for changes in the chemical mix of sebum, a natural waxy oil produced by the skin that has previously been linked to Parkinson’s.

At this time, there is no conclusive test for Parkinson’s disease — specialists look at symptoms, medical history, the results of a lengthy physical exam, and in some cases a brain scan to diagnose the condition.

“This test has the potential to vastly improve the diagnosis and management of people with Parkinson’s disease,” said neurologist Monty Silverdale of the University of Manchester in the UK.

The new test builds on researchers’ work with Scottish woman Joy Milne, who has hereditary hyperosmia — an increased sensitivity to smells.

After noticing that her husband developed a more musky odor many years before he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it was discovered that Milne could smell the signs of the disease in humans.

That led the team to sebum, which is linked to the endocrine system and keeps skin hydrated. In 2019, some of the same researchers identified how the chemical mix of sebum changed in a person once Parkinson’s disease was present.

Now we have a test based on that shift in biomarkers. Swabs taken in a clinic are sent to a lab, where they undergo a mass spectrometry analysis to see their molecular makeup. For the current study, samples from 79 people with Parkinson’s were compared with samples from 71 people without the disease.

Joy Milne helps with the investigation. (University of Manchester)

“Doing this, we find more than 4,000 unique compounds, 500 of which differ between people with Parkinson’s disease compared to the control participants,” said University of Manchester chemist Depanjan Sarkar.

That the test is non-invasive and so fast in terms of generating results are positive signs, although the scientists still need to demonstrate that they can scale up the procedure and make it work outside of lab conditions.

Moving on, the researchers say other diseases and conditions could be diagnosed through an analysis of sebum — although it’s not entirely clear yet why Parkinson’s onset would trigger these changes in the production of the fluid.

Parkinson’s is currently the fastest growing neurological disease there is, and that growth is expected to continue. While scientists are working hard to find a cure, there are ways to slow it down and manage it — which is where early diagnosis can be so important.

“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 University of Manchester chemist Perdita Barran.

The research is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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