Researchers at the University of Manchester have found small molecules in sebum that emit a distinctive smell in people with Parkinson’s Disease.

These findings could be used to develop early diagnostic tests for the neurodegenerative disorder, which leads to progressive brain cell death and significant loss of motor function. There are currently no definitive diagnostic tests available in the market.

The research was led by the University of Manchester and was funded by Parkinson’s UK and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

The University of Manchester’s honorary lecturer Joy Milne noticed that people with Parkinson’s had a different smell and its intensity changed as the condition advanced. She first smelled this odour in her husband Les many years before he was clinically diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

To investigate, the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) used gauze to collect sebum samples from the upper backs of more than 60 subjects suffering with and without Parkinson’s.

“This could have a huge impact not only for earlier and conclusive diagnosis but also help patients monitor the effect of therapy.”

The researchers then used mass spectrometry to identify the molecular compounds. Analysis of the sample data found the presence of hippuric acid, eicosane and octadecanal, as well as other biomarkers.

MIB professor of mass spectrometry Perdita Barran said: “Now we have proved the molecular basis for the unique odour associated with Parkinson’s we want to develop this into a test.

“This could have a huge impact not only for earlier and conclusive diagnosis but also help patients monitor the effect of therapy. We hope to apply this to at-risk patient groups to see if we can diagnose pre-motor symptoms, and assist with potential early treatment.”

Parkinson’s UK deputy director of research and professor David Dexter said: “Finding changes in the oils of the skin in Parkinson’s is an exciting discovery that was sparked by a simple conversation between a member of the public and a researcher.

“More research is needed to find out at what stage a skin test could detect Parkinson’s, or whether it is also occurs in other Parkinson’s related disorders, but the results so far hold real potential. Both to change the way we diagnose the condition and it may even help in the development of new and better treatments for the 145,00 people living with Parkinson’s in the UK.”