Researchers have demonstrated it is possible to diagnose Parkinson’s disease from a skin swab and analysis of sebum. While some refinement of the test is still required, a skin swab test for Parkinson’s disease could be just around the corner.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that is characterized by a loss of nerve cells in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. Symptoms include tremors, slow movement, muscle stiffness, impaired balance, speech changes, and loss of automatic movements. The symptoms tend to develop slowly, so they often go unnoticed until they become more pronounced.
There is currently no diagnostic test for Parkinson’s disease. It can take several years from the onset of symptoms for Parkinson’s disease to be diagnosed, with misdiagnoses common. While there is no cure, there are medications that can be administered to managed symptoms.
Researchers first started exploring the idea of a skin swab test for Parkinson’s disease when Joy Milne, a retired nurse from Perth in Scotland, told doctors she was able to tell her husband had Parkinson’s disease from a change in his body odor. She said she noticed her husband had developed a slightly musky smell.
In 2019, Joy’s ability to detect Parkinson’s disease was put to the test, with a study at the University of Manchester confirming Joy ability smell Parkinson’s disease was 100% accurate. The researchers conducted a study using skin swabs taken from individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and analyzed the samples. They used a metabolomics profiling approach to identify changes to lipids in sebum, with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) used to identify molecules that could indicate Parkinson’s disease. The researchers identified metabolites in the sebum of PD patients that differed from the control group and found they could accurately predict PD phenotype from the presence of these metabolites.
“Pathway enrichment analysis shows alterations in lipid metabolism related to the carnitine shuttle, sphingolipid metabolism, arachidonic acid metabolism and fatty acid biosynthesis,” explained the researchers.
Analyses of sebum are common with dermatological conditions such as acne, but they are rarely used in disease diagnostics. The researchers have now obtained data from 500 people and found they were able to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in 8 out of 10 patients.
A skin swab is noninvasive and painless, analysis of sebum requires technology that is already widely available, and the test and analysis are quick and simple to perform. The researchers are currently seeking funding to further develop the test to improve accuracy. They also believe it may be possible to use a skin swab test to determine, at a molecular level, whether treatments for Parkinson’s disease are having an impact.
You can read more about the study in the paper – Metabolomics of sebum reveals lipid dysregulation in Parkinson’s disease – which was published in Nature Communications on March 1, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-21669-4