Painless skin swabs used to detect Parkinson's with high accuracy
As it stands, diagnosing Parkinson's can be a complicated process that relies on symptoms, careful examinations and case-by-case assessments of physicians, but lately we're seeing how more clear cut signs of disease could arise in the gut, our tears and even our skin. Scientists at the University of Manchester (UM) focusing on this lattermost possibility have made a significant discovery, finding that swabs that gather chemical information from the skin can be used to distinguish Parkinson's patients from healthy controls with high accuracy.
The idea of detecting Parkinson's via biomarkers in the skin is gaining traction, with researchers coming at this possibility from a number of angles. The hope is that it can be diagnosed and then managed during its earlier stages, before the majority of the brain cells that produce dopamine have died off and a patient's symptoms become severe.
One way scientists might be able to do this is through skin biopsies that reveal certain biomarkers. Last October we looked at a study where researchers were able to demonstrate how this approach can be used to identify the disease correctly in 24 out of 25 cases, by detecting misfolding alpha-synuclein proteins.
This new study investigates a non-invasive approach, focusing on swabs that collect samples from the oily layer on our skin called the sebum. This substance is brimming with molecules of interest, and it is thought that people with Parkinson's produce higher amounts of it than those without. So the UM team drew up a study to explore its relationship with the disease.
Five hundred participants were recruited for the experiments, both with and without Parkinson's, with sebum samples collected from their upper backs. A variety of mass spectrometry methods were then used to analyze the chemical contents, which revealed 10 chemicals that were either heightened or lowered in those suffering from Parkinson's. Using these biomarkers, the scientists were able to distinguish those with the disease from those without with an accuracy of 85 percent.
As part of a separate but related study, the research team again used mass spectrometry to monitor these chemical signatures over time. This revealed subtle alterations as the disease progressed, with the scientists finding changes occurring to fat processing and in the mitochondria of the Parkinson's patients. In this way, the skin swab technology mightn't just be a way of diagnosing Parkinson's, but monitoring its progression.
"We believe that our results are an extremely encouraging step towards tests that could be used to help diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s," says the University of Manchester's Professor Perdita Barran. "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 (National Health Service) and to develop more precise diagnostics and better treatment for this debilitating condition."
Source: University of Manchester