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Longevity Briefs: How A Skin Swab Could Help Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease

Posted on 12 March 2021

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is currently based primarily on motor symptoms and medical history. While brain scans and blood tests might help support the diagnosis and rule out other conditions, there is no specific medical test that can diagnose Parkinson’s disease by itself. However, some non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may occur many years before motor symptoms emerge. One such symptom is the overproduction of the protective ‘skin oil’ called sebum.

What did the researchers do: Researchers at The University of Manchester recruited 500 individuals with and without Parkinson’s disease. Using mass spectrometry, they analysed and compared the chemical compositions of sebum samples from the participants’ upper backs.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: 10 chemicals within the sebum were found to be elevated in individuals with Parkinson’s disease compared with non-diseased participants. These differences are understood to be linked to the dysfunctional mitochondria (the cell’s power plants) and altered lipid (fat) metabolism that occur in Parkinson’s disease. Using the data, researchers were able to create models that predicted whether or not an individual had Parkinson’s disease with a sensitivity and specificity of around 70%.

The team has plans to further improve the accuracy of diagnosis. What makes this test promising is that it is fast, painless, and highly cost-effective due to being based on widely available technology. Since the composition of the sebum changes as Parkinson’s disease progresses, the test could be used not only as a form of diagnosis, but also to monitor disease progression, and to assess the effectiveness of Parkinson’s treatments in clinical trials.

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