A study has been launched to identify small molecules secreted by the skin that are believed to emit a unique scent in people in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

Researchers believe that Parkinson’s may affect a change in the sebum – an oily substance in the skin – of people with the condition that results in a unique and subtle odour on the skin only detectable by people with an acute sense of smell. The study was prompted by a “super-smeller” from Scotland who was able to identify people with Parkinson’s just from t-shirts they had slept in. The charity Parkinson’s UK is now funding researchers at Manchester, Edinburgh and London to study 200 people with and without Parkinson’s. They hope to confirm findings from a pilot study by the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh involving 24 people, which suggested that Parkinson’s can be identified by odour alone. One in 500 people in the UK have Parkinson’s, which can leave people struggling to walk, speak and sleep, and has no cure or definitive diagnostic test; 127,000 people in the UK live with the condition and 7.5 million worldwide.

Professor Perdita Barran and her team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), based at The University of Manchester, will use mass spectrometry technology to analyse skin swabs taken from people with and without Parkinson’s. The research team will extract, analyse and identify small molecule components taken from the skin to identify specific biomarkers found in Parkinson’s. The team will also be using ‘human detectors’- people with exceptional smelling abilities. Both the analytical and the human approach will be used to grade identical samples in an attempt to pinpoint which molecular changes in the skin might be producing the unique odour found in people with Parkinson’s. Professor Barran, leading the research at the MIB and working with neurologist Dr Monty Silverdale on the study, said: “The sampling of the skin surface will provide a rich source of metabolites which we can mine to distinguish healthy patients from those in the early stages of Parkinson’s. “We are excited to embark on this biomarker discovery project. It is hoped that these results could lead to the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test that may have the ability to diagnose early Parkinson’s – possibly even before physical symptoms occur.”

Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, which is funding the study, said: “Funding pioneering studies like this has the potential to throw Parkinson’s into a completely new light. “It’s very early days in the research, but if it’s proved there is a unique odour associated with Parkinson’s, particularly early on in the condition, it could have a huge impact, not just on early diagnosis, but it would also make it a lot easier to identify people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop Parkinson’s, something no current drug can achieve.”