Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer
Menu Share this content
Menu Search the University of Manchester siteSearch
Search type

Alternatively, use our A–Z index

Parkinson's

Industrial biotechnology

Global challenges

Manchester solutions

Enabling early diagnosis of life-changing diseases

Every hour, someone in the UK is told they have Parkinson’s disease – a progressive neurological condition with no definitive diagnostic test and no cure. At The University of Manchester we are tackling the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test that may have the ability to diagnose early Parkinson’s – possibly even before physical symptoms are displayed.

Global problem: lack of diagnosis negates treatment impact

Parkinson’s disease affects 127,000 people in the UK and 7.5 million worldwide, leaving many patients struggling to walk, speak and sleep.

The lack of a definitive test for Parkinson’s means that, typically, too many neurons in the brain are lost irretrievably by the time of diagnosis, making treatment difficult and a cure impossible.

Manchester solution: biomarker breakthrough may deliver early diagnosis

In a collaborative programme funded by the Michael J Fox Foundation and Parkinson’s UK, researchers from our Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) are undertaking investigations to identify novel small molecules from sebum – an oily substance found in the skin – which are believed to emit a subtle but unique scent in patients in the early stages of Parkinson’s.

Parkinson's

Our research is inspired by the case of Les Milne, a Parkinson’s patient, whose wife Joy began to notice a change in her husband’s scent more than six years prior to his diagnosis and then recognised the same “woody, musky odour” on patients at a Parkinson’s UK awareness lecture many years later.  

This breakthrough was confirmed in a pilot study involving parallel investigations that showed there are different chemicals present on the skin surface of people with and without Parkinson’s.

We use state-of-the-art mass spectrometry technology to analyse skin swabs taken from people with and without Parkinson’s. The research team then analyse the data to identify the small-molecule components present on the skin to identify specific biomarkers found in Parkinson’s disease.

"The combined analytical and human approach is helping us to grade identical samples that will hopefully pinpoint which molecular changes in the skin might be producing the unique odour found in Parkinson’s sufferers. This could enable early, non-invasive diagnosis – perhaps even before physical symptoms occur."

Perdita Barran / Professor of Mass Spectrometry

Professor Perdita Barran, who is leading the research team at MIB, says: The sampling of the skin’s surface provides a rich source of metabolites that we can mine to distinguish healthy patients from those in the early stages of Parkinson’s. In parallel, we’re using ‘human detectors’ drawn from individuals who have exceptional smelling abilities.

“The combined analytical and human approach is helping us to grade identical samples that will hopefully pinpoint which molecular changes in the skin might be producing the unique odour found in Parkinson’s sufferers. This could enable early, non-invasive diagnosis – perhaps even before physical symptoms occur.”

Life-changing impacts

Proving that there is a unique odour associated with Parkinson’s could mean:

  • early, non-invasive diagnosis of millions of patients worldwide, boosting their chances of effective treatment and a greater quality of life;
  • easier identification of people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop, Parkinson’s – something no current drug can achieve.

Find out more

Read the research paper:

  • 'Joy of super smeller: sebum clues for PD diagnostics', J Morgan, The Lancet Neurology 15, 138-139

Meet the researchers:

  • Professor Perdita Barran, Professor of Mass Spectrometry
  • Professor Roy Goodacre, Professor of Biological Chemistry
  • Dr Monty Silverdale, Consultant Neurologist at Greater Manchester Neuroscience Centre, Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at the Institute of Brain Behaviour and Mental Health at The University of Manchester