The Economist March 12, 2022 |Science&technology|Medical technology|”The nose knows” “An artificial sniffer may be able to detect Parkinson’s disease early”
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Image from the published work of Fu et al. including senior authors Chen Xing and Liu Jun. Reference is Fu et al. ACS Omega 2022 7, 4001-4010.
Sometimes scientific investigation starts with a simple observation. As an example protection from Smallpox in milkmaids exposed to Cowpox (Jenner 1796) or the inhibition of bacterial growth near the penicillium mold that had contaminated media on which bacteria were being cultured (Fleming 1928).
Now a Mrs. Milne “first noticed…[an]...odor when her husband developed” Parkinson’s disease. Her nose is somehow quite sensitive as she later “smelled it at sufferers’ support groups attended by her husband.”
Researchers then tested “clothing worn by patients [and] confirmed her ability.” A report in ACS Omega by Chinese investigators, Chen Xing and Liu Jun (Zhejiang University), reported the finding “in sebum…of those with Parkinson’s…has unusually high concentrations of…dodecane, acetone and ethyl acetate.”
These organic acids are “acted on by yeast cells which live naturally on the skin, the result is the mysterious odor.” GC-MS, gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, a complex but commonly used analytical instrument used in research and medical laboratories can be used to detect these compounds in esoteric but not routine laboratories.
The authors are working on a “machine not much bigger than a toaster” to perform the analysis in common clinical settings. So far, the current methods using GC-MS, “identify a Parkinson’s patient having the disease about 70% of the time and a healthy control as being clear of it in about 80%.” Not as good as Mrs. Milne but with refinement it may “prove a boon for early diagnosis” of Parkinson’s Disease.