Woman capable of sniffing out Parkinson’s disease offers hope for new diagnosis method

A retired nurse from Perth noticed a ‘musky’ smell from her husband before he was diagnosed with the disease

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 20 March 2019 12:51
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Women claims she can smell Parkinson's

A woman’s astonishing ability to sniff out Parkinson’s disease has raised hopes for a new tool to diagnose the devastating condition.

Joy Milne, a retired nurse from Perth in Scotland, noticed a “musky” smell from her husband Les before he was diagnosed with the neurological disease in 1985.

Now scientists have managed to track down what initially triggered the tell-tale odour.

The breakthrough came after the 68-year-old Ms Milne approached a researcher at a Parkinson’s UK lecture.

This ultimately led to a Manchester University study that began in 2015, inspired by her apparent ability to smell a substance associated with the condition.

The findings of this research have now been published in the journal ACS Central Science.

There are hopes the discovery could help diagnose people with the condition earlier – before problems with motor control emerge.

“What we found are some compounds that are more present in people who have got Parkinson’s disease, and the reason we’ve discovered them is because Joy Milne could smell a difference,” Professor Perdita Barran, a lead author of the study, told the BBC.

“She could smell people who’ve got Parkinson’s disease.”

The scientists designed experiments to mimic Ms Milne’s sense of smell by using a piece of equipment called a mass spectrometer.

The “volatile biomarkers” they identified could help to develop a simple test for early detection of the disease.

“What we might hope is if we can diagnose people earlier, before the motor symptoms come in, that there will be treatments that can prevent the disease spreading. So that’s really the ultimate ambition,” said Prof Barran.

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Around one adult in every 350 in the UK has Parkinson’s, which can leave people struggling to walk, speak and sleep. Some 145,000 people in the UK live with the condition.

However, the search for effective treatments for the disease has proved difficult, and diagnosis tends to be based on observing symptoms rather than a definitive test.

Ms Milne has such a powerful sense of smell that she also claims to be able to identify other diseases, including cancer.

She intends to continue collaborating with researchers to develop more smell-based tests.

Additional reporting by PA

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