Well-Being Medical Advances

Skin swab test could potentially detect Parkinson’s disease

Scientists look for molecular differences in the sebum from skin of patients.
cotton rounds and cotton tipped swabs

Story at a glance

  • Parkinson’s disease may be difficult to diagnose. 

  • A new technique involves molecular analysis of sebum, an oily substance that the skin secretes naturally.

  • Study results suggest that the molecular makeup of sebum in Parkinson’s patients may be different enough to detect from a simple skin swab.

A team of researchers in the U.K. have developed a potential test for Parkinson’s disease in which they analyze skin swabs. 

Previous research suggests the potential ability to detect differences in types of sebum, the oily waxy substances produced by the skin, in people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). The chemical makeup of sebum in Parkinson’s patients may contain different fats and metabolites that can be detected using mass spectrometry, a technique that scientists use to identify molecules. 

Scientists pursued this line of thinking from observing Joy Milne, who is able to detect PD from a distinct body odor in an individual before clinical symptoms occur, according to a press release. Milne has a heightened sense of smell — also known as Hyperosmia — and was able to detect a difference in sebum that collects on the upper back of patients. 

For this test, clinicians can collect a skin swab from the upper backs of patients and send in the sample for analysis. The study has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society

“The sebum is transferred to filter paper from sampling swab, and we then cut this to a triangle, add a drop of solvent, apply a voltage and this transfers compounds from the sebum into the mass spectrometer,” lead author Depanjan Sarkar at the University of Manchester said in a statement. “When we do this, we find more than 4000 unique compounds of which 500 are different between people with PD compared to the control participants.” 

The molecular weights of the compounds found in sebum of Parkinson’s patients were significantly different than skin samples taken from people without Parkinson’s. 

The authors say that further work is necessary to understand how this kind of test could be used for diagnosis and clinical purposes, but this proof-of-concept is a step in that direction.

“This test has the potential to massively improve the diagnosis and management of people with Parkinson’s disease,” said another study author, Monty Silverdale, who is a neurologist from the University of Manchester in the U.K., in the press release.