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Guided by Human “Super Smeller,” Scientists Use Mass Spectrometry to ID Volatile Biomarkers for Parkinson’s Disease; Novel Findings May Enable Development of Noninvasive, Biomarker-Based Test That Will Permit Early Detection of Parkinson’s

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that leads to progressive brain cell death and extensive loss of motor function. Despite much research being conducted on this disease, there are no definitive diagnostic tests currently available. Now, researchers report the identification of compounds that make up the signature odor of the disease with the help an individual who can detect PD through smell. They reported their findings on March 20, 2019 in ACS Central Science, published by the American Chemical Society. The open-access article is titled “Discovery of Volatile Biomarkers of Parkinson’s Disease from Sebum.” Ancient physicians, including Hippocrates, Galenus, and Avicenna, used scent as a diagnostic tool, and although olfactory tests are not common in modern medicine, diseases such as diabetes are often associated with a particular smell. However, there has been little evidence to tie scent to neurodegenerative disorders. Enter Joy Milne (photo), a "Super Smeller," a grandmother whose late husband Les was diagnosed with PD in 1986. Milne has an extremely sensitive sense of smell, and this enables her to detect and discriminate odors not normally detected by those of average olfactory ability. Milne can distinguish the unique odor of PD, which she can detect in subjects' sebum long before clinical symptoms appear. Sebrum is a light yellow, waxy, lipid-based biofluid that is secreted by the sebaceous glands and moisturizes and protects the hair and the skin, particularly the skin on the forehead and upper back. Sebum is made up of triglycerides, free fatty acids, wax esters, squalene, cholesterol esters, and cholesterol. Excessive production of sebrum is a known symptom of PD. So, Perdita Barran, PhD, Professor of Mass Spectormetry, at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, School of Chemistry, University of Manchester (UK), and colleagues there and at other institutions, wanted to determine what chemicals make up the scent in sebum that Milne is picking up on in Parkinson's patients so that scientists can eventually develop a diagnostic test for the disease. The researchers collected sebum samples using gauze to swab the upper backs of more than 60 subjects, both with and without Parkinson's. The volatile scent compounds of sebum that could be contributing to a disease-associated smell were extracted and analyzed using mass spectrometry. The data revealed the presence of hippuric acid, eicosane, and octadecanal, which indicate the altered levels of neurotransmitters found in Parkinson's patients, along with several other biomarkers for the disease. Milne confirmed the signature musk of Parkinson's when presented with laboratory-prepared samples containing these compounds in a controlled olfactory environment. While the researchers acknowledge the limited scope of this study, they say it opens the door to the development of a non-invasive screening test for Parkinson's, potentially leading to earlier detection.

AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY

The American Chemical Society (ACS), which is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the United States Congress, is the world's largest scientific society, The ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals, and scientific conferences. The ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

[Press release] [ACS Central Science article]

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