As It Happens

British woman believes she can smell Parkinson's disease

A British woman named Joy Milne may have the ability to detect Parkinson's disease through smell, even before symptoms appear. The University of Edinburgh's Tilo Kunath has been studying Milne since he learned about her case.
Joy Milne's husband, right, passed away from Parkinson's in June. Before he was diagnosed with the disease, Milne noticed that he was giving off a 'musky' odour. (Parkinson's UK in Scotland/Facebook)

A British woman may have the ability to detect people with Parkinson's disease through smell. University of Edinburgh researcher Tilo Kunath first learned about Joy Milne's case at a seminar he was conducting in 2012.

"She asked me, 'Do people with Parkinson's smell different?' I was taken aback. I didn't know what to say," Kunath, a former PhD student at the University of Toronto, tells As it Happens host Carol Off.

At first, Kunath didn't think much of Milne's question. That was, until he brought it up to a friend with a background in cancer research.

"I told her the story and she said, 'You should find that lady.' So, it took me some sleuthing, but I did track her down."

Milne told Kunath that she noticed a distinct "musky" odour on her husband before his Parkinson's diagnosis. At first, she didn't think much of it. But, when she joined the charity Parkinson's UK, she began meeting other people with the disease. Milne noticed that these people gave off the exact same odour.

Tilo Kunath is the Parkinson's UK Senior Research Fellow. He was one of the first scientists to learn about Joy Milne's case. (Tilo Kunath)

In 2013, researchers began testing Milne's ability. They recruited people to wear t-shirts for a day. Then, they got Milne to smell the t-shirts - six coming from people with Parkinson's and six from people without the disease.

Milne got 11 out of 12 right.

"The one mistake she made was a gentleman that didn't have Parkinson's," Kunath says. "But, she was adamant this individual had Parkinson's."

Eight months after the study, this individual was diagnosed with the disease.

"My jaw dropped. She was right and we just had him in the wrong category," says Kunath.

Despite Milne's ability, Kunath says that it doesn't make sense to use people to detect the disease.

"So, where do we go from here? One area is dogs," he says. "There's also lots of molecular tools and technology … A good example is airport detectors for explosives."

Now, Parkinson's UK is funding a study to look into how body odour could be used to diagnose Parkinson's.

Kunath is hopeful that odour detection could be used to determine who to treat in the future, when a cure or preventive medicine for Parkinson's disease is discovered.

In Milne's case, she detected her husband's disease six years before he started showing symptoms.

"So, if we could identify these individuals, they would be the perfect candidates for a clinical trial to give them this new preventive medicine and prevent the onset of the condition all together."