A woman from the UK, whose husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease many years ago, has the unique distinction of being able to detect the disease in patients through a most unusual method. She can literally smell it. Her ability to do so has been verified through scientific study.
Joy Milne, the wife of Parkinson’s Disease patient Les Milne, can actually smell Parkinson’s disease. More importantly, she is able to detect Parkinson’s before symptoms became noticeable. This unusual story was recently published in an article on the BBC News website.
Milne says that about 10 years prior to her husband Les’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, she noted a change in his body odor. She described it as a musky smell that was very noticeable to her. At first she attributed it to her husband’s hygiene practices (or lack thereof) and it became a point of contention in their relationship. Eventually, because her husband became so agitated by her complaints, she just kept her mouth shut and stopped complaining. For his part, her husband was convinced that he was adequately addressing his hygiene.
She never made the connection between the unusual smell and Parkinson’s until she and her husband attended a support group for patients with Parkinson’s and she detected the same unusual smell on the patients gathered at the support meeting. It was eye opening.
There is no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease, and physicians usually have to diagnosis Parkinson’s based on visible, physical symptoms. This is not really conducive to the philosophy of early detection and treatment.
The musky smell that Milne was smelling even could be detected on the patient’s clothes. In one of the tests, Milne was given the t-shirts of 12 people, 6 who were Parkinson’s diagnosed and 6 who were not. Milne correctly identified the 6 Parkinson’s patients, but she also detected the smell on the t-shirt of someone who had not been diagnosed with the disease. 3 months later, that patient was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In 2015, at the age of 65, Milne’s husband passed away. She made a promise to him on his death bed that she would join researchers to understand how her unusual ability might be used to develop tools to diagnose Parkinson’s earlier.
And that is exactly what has happened. Through research into Joy’s olfactory senses and a device that separates each individual molecule, scientists were able to identify 10 molecules that were specific to Parkinson’s Disease patients.
“It is very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson’s. It wouldn’t have happened without Joy.”
— Prof. Perdita Barran, Manchester University
Approximately 1 million people in the United States live with Parkinson’s disease. The cause of the disease is still unknown, but is most likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors. With 60,000 new cases being diagnosed each year, it is a critical improvement to find a way to diagnose these patients earlier in the disease state.
It’s truly an amazing thing that the discovery of a detection tool for Parkinson’s disease would have its origin in the complaints of a wife for her husband to do a better job of bathing and brushing his teeth. Some of science’s best discoveries have great and unusual stories like this one.