Can a simple swab test help diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s disease?


A simple skin-swab test could be used to help diagnose Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain condition if UK scientists are to go by. As per a latest study, it is possible to identify Parkinson’s based on the compounds found on one’s skin. The University of Manchester scientists have developed a technique that quickly detects tell-tale compounds in sebum – the oily substance that protects the skin – and identifies changes in people with the disease.

Currently, there is no cure and no definitive test for Parkinson’s. Also, diagnosis can take years.

Sebum, which is rich in lipid-like molecules, is one of the lesser-studied biological fluids in the diagnosis of the condition. People with Parkinson’s tend to produce more sebum than normal – which is called seborrhoea.

Researchers discovered this after a woman amazed doctors with her ability to detect Parkinson’s through smell. Retired nurse Joy Milne, 68, from Perth, noticed the “musky” smell on her husband, Les, years before his Parkinson’s diagnosis.

The research team used a mass-spectrometry machine to detect the compounds, and now has data from 500 people, showing the skin test can correctly distinguish those with Parkinson’s more than eight out of every 10 times.

Investigator Prof Perdita Barran 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.”

World Parkinson's Day A swab test can help? (Photo by iStock / Getty Images)

“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 research, funded by charities Parkinson’s UK and Michael J Fox Foundation as well as The University of Manchester Innovation Factory, analysed the samples taken from the people’s upper backs.

The new study, published in Nature Communications, showed how the skin swab test was not only useful in diagnosing the condition but also in monitoring the development of the condition with changes in the regulation of lipids in cells.

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