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‘Game-changing’ swab test could revolutionise Parkinson’s diagnoses ©Getty Images

‘Game-changing’ swab test could revolutionise Parkinson’s diagnoses

Published: 11th March, 2021 at 16:08
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The test is quick, painless, and inexpensive, the researchers say.

A potentially game-changing test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease is in sight, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Manchester.


In a paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers say their findings offer hope that a new test could be developed to diagnose the degenerative condition through a simple painless skin swab.

The test works by analysing compounds found in sebum – the oily substance that coats and protects the skin - and identifying changes in patients with the disease.

“We believe that our results are an extremely encouraging step towards tests that could be used to help diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s,” said Prof Perdita Barran, of the University of Manchester.

“Not only is the test quick, simple and painless but it should also be extremely cost-effective because it uses existing technology that is already widely available.

“We are now looking to take our findings forwards to refine the test to improve accuracy even further and to take steps towards making this a test that can be used in the NHS and to develop more precise diagnostics and better treatment for this debilitating condition.”

Read more about treating Parkinson’s Disease:

The team analysed samples of sebum taken from the upper backs of 500 people, some with Parkinson's and some without. Using mass spectrometry, they identified 10 chemical compounds in sebum that are are elevated or reduced in people with Parkinson's. This then allowed them to diagnose people with Parkinson's with 85 per cent accuracy.

Parkinson’s develops gradually and it could be years before symptoms become obvious enough for someone to visit their GP.

Currently, a DaTscan is used to help specialists confirm the loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain that cause the development of Parkinson’s.

However, similar loss may also occur in some other rarer neurological conditions, making diagnosis difficult.

In a recent survey of more than 2,000 people with the condition carried out by Parkinson’s UK, more than a quarter reported they were misdiagnosed with a different condition before receiving the correct diagnosis.

Daxa Kalayci, 56, lives in Leicester and was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s in September 2019 after being misdiagnosed several times over four years.

“This test could be a game-changer for people living with Parkinson’s and searching for answers, like I was,” she said.

“I am so happy with this news because it will mean that in future people won’t have to experience the anxiety of multiple appointments, long waiting times and sleepless nights.


“The sooner this test is available, the better. Anything that can help people looking for a diagnosis is a bonus.”

Reader Q&A: How long can the brain live outside the body?

Asked by: James Forbes, by email

The metabolic needs of vertebrate brains are actually fairly simple – mainly oxygen and glucose. These can be supplied by connecting the blood vessels that supply the brain with an artificial blood substitute or by immersing the blood in an artificial cerebro-spinal fluid and oxygenating that directly. Guinea pig, dog and monkey brains have all been kept alive for hours or even days after being removed.

The problem is that, without an attached body, the health of the brain can only be assessed in a fairly basic way. Generally the uptake of oxygen and presence of electrical activity are taken as evidence that the brain is alive. Since there is currently no way to reattach the severed spinal cord, it is very difficult to judge whether the brain is still conscious and fully functioning.

Read more:


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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