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Scientists move closer to new method to diagnose Parkinson’s

11 March 2021
A new study shows it is possible to identify Parkinson’s disease based on chemical compounds found on the surface of skin. These findings could lead to a new test to diagnose the neurodegenerative condition accurately, speedily and cost effectively through a simple and painless skin swab.

The research was led by The University of Manchester in collaboration with scientists at VU Amsterdam and two other universities. They developed a technique that analyses chemical compounds found in sebum - the oily substance that coats and protects the skin - and identifies changes in people with Parkinson’s. In their new study, published today in Nature Communications, the scientists unveiled novel diagnostic sebum-based biomarkers for Parkinson’s. Biomarkers are indicators for a particular disease in the human body.

Identifying Parkinson’s with 85% accuracy
People with Parkinson's may produce more sebum than normal - a condition known as seborrhoea. For the study, the researchers recruited 500 people with and without Parkinson’s. Samples of sebum were taken from their upper backs for analysis. By using different mass spectrometry methods, ten chemical compounds in sebum were identified which are elevated or reduced in people with Parkinson’s - and were able to distinguish people with Parkinson’s with 85 per cent accuracy based on these chemicals alone. Besides that, the newly found biomarkers can also provide insight into understanding how the condition develops.

About 10% of the samples measured came from the Netherlands. Analytical chemist Anouk Rijs (VU Amsterdam) collected the samples together with neurologist Rob de Bie (Amsterdam UMC). “The nice thing is that the Dutch samples matches with the samples from the United Kingdom, so although we have a different diet in the Netherlands - in general we consume more dairy products – we have found the same biomarkers.”

Important new tool in clinical trials
The skin swab could provide an important new tool in clinical trials helping researchers measure whether new, experimental treatments are able to slow, stop or reverse the progression of Parkinson’s. Besides that, there is a large group of other conditions within the Parkinson spectrum that have similar symptoms. In early stages, it can be difficult to distinguish Parkinson's because the other conditions appear identical at first sight. The skin swab can contribute at an early stage to more clarity about the specific condition someone has.

With this study, the team expands on their recent findings on the use of volatile compounds to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, which are published just a few weeks ago in ACS Central Science. In the future, Rijs will test and evaluate the use of a combined method of infrared spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, which is currently being developed in the new MS-LaserLab at VU Amsterdam. “The combination of those two methods makes it possible to measure molecular fingerprints of selected masses. This will allow us to uniquely identify the found biomarkers.”

More information about this study can be found in the press release of The University of Manchester.