Fight against Parkinson’s

Scientists are on the verge of a major breakthrough in the fight against Parkinson’s thanks to a Scottish nurse’s highly developed sense of smell.

Joy Milne first noticed her husband Les started to smell differently 12 years before he was first diagnosed with the condition. It was only when the couple then met with others in a support group that she recognised the same odour and alerted medics.

On the night before he died, Les asked his wife to promise she would continue to use her sense of smell to help others. Now researchers in Manchester, inspired by Joy’s work, are close to producing a swab that will allow every GP in the country to conduct a quick diagnostic test.

Parkinson’s is now the fastest growing neurological condition in the world and one in which the brain becomes progressively damaged as brain cell loss reduces the ability to produce the chemical dopamine.

It is named after the physician James Parkinson who first identified the symptoms in a medical paper in 1817.

The three main symptoms are: involuntary shaking of the body, slow movement, and stiff and inflexible muscle.

This can then lead to depression and anxiety, balance problems that can lead to falls, loss of sense of smell, memory, and sleep problems.

Around 1 in every 500 people will be affected and though most commonly diagnosed in people over 50, in 5% of cases it emerges under the age of 40.

There is no cure yet, but early diagnosis will help people access treatment and support to help them live with the condition.

After researchers learned of Joy’s gift, she agreed to take part in a controlled test in which she was given T-shirts worn by 12 people and asked to identify from smell which six of them had Parkinson’s.

Joy, 72, from Perth, identified seven and it turned out she was right. The seventh person was not thought at the time to have the disease but was diagnosed with it eight months later.

Impressed by Joy’s accuracy, researchers at the University of Manchester began analysing sebum – the oily substance on skin – which was collected by using a cotton swab on patients’ backs, an area where it is less often washed away.

This identified hundreds of compounds unique to Parkinson’s sufferers and helped develop a skin-swab which has 95% accuracy and is now undergoing NHS hospital trials.

With no definitive test currently in use, people are having to wait months and even years for diagnosis so a simple swab test that could be administered at your local GP would be transformative.

More information about Parkinson’s can be found at:

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