Scientists edge closer to developing ‘game-changing’ test for Parkinson’s

New approach could accelerate the diagnosis of the disease, which develops gradually and can take years to present itself, by using simple skin swab

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Thursday 11 March 2021 14:35
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Scientists are edging closer to developing a “game-changing” test that could reduce the time it takes to diagnose Parkinson’s disease.

A study from the University of Manchester has shown that it is possible to identify the degenerative condition based on compounds founds on the surface of the skin.

It’s hoped this approach could accelerate the diagnosis of Parkinson’s – which develops gradually and can take years to present itself – by using a simple and painless skin swab.

Scientists have also suggested the test could be used to monitor the development of the condition and help researchers measure whether new, experimental treatments are able to slow, stop or reverse the progression of the disease.

Perdita Barran, professor of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester, said: “We believe that our results are an extremely encouraging step towards tests that could be used to help diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s.

“Not only is the test quick, simple and painless but it should also be extremely cost-effective because it uses existing technology that is already widely available.

“We are now looking to take our findings forwards to refine the test to improve accuracy even further and to take steps towards making this a test that can be used in the NHS and to develop more precise diagnostics and better treatment for this debilitating condition.”

The new technique analyses compounds found in sebum – the oily substance that coats and protects the skin – and identifies changes in people with Parkinson’s.

Sebum is one of the lesser studied biological fluids in the diagnosis of the condition.

People with Parkinson's may produce more sebum than normal – a condition known as seborrhoea, researchers say.

To gather their results, the team of scientists, led by Prof Barran, recruited 500 people with and without Parkinson’s.

Samples of sebum were taken from their upper backs for analysis. Using different mass spectrometry methods, 10 chemical compounds in sebum were identified which are elevated or reduced in people with Parkinson’s.

This allows scientists to distinguish people with the condition with 85 per cent accuracy.

A DaTscan is regularly used to help specialists confirm the loss of dopamine-producing cells that cause the development of Parkinson’s. However, similar loss may also occur in some other rarer neurological conditions.

Given there is no molecular test for the disease, diagnosis is made by a neurologist based on a combination of symptoms such as tremor, slowness, stiffness and balance issues, many of which can overlap with other conditions.

In a recent survey of more than 2,000 people with the condition carried out by Parkinson’s UK, more than a quarter (26 per cent) reported they were misdiagnosed with a different condition before receiving the correct Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Professor David Dexter, associate director of research at Parkinson's UK, said: “We are proud to have part-funded this ground-breaking research which marks a significant step towards developing a quick and accurate test that can not only revolutionise the way we diagnose Parkinson’s, but also allow us to monitor how this debilitating condition progresses.”

Daxa Kalayci, 56, lives in Leicester and was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s in September 2019 after being misdiagnosed several times over four years.

“This test could be a game-changer for people living with Parkinson’s and searching for answers, like I was,” she said.

“I am so happy with this news because it will mean that in future people won’t have to experience the anxiety of multiple appointments, long waiting times and sleepless nights.

“The sooner this test is available, the better. Anything that can help people looking for a diagnosis is a bonus.”

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