Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Thirty-seven years ago, Joy Milne, a nurse from Perth, Scotland, noticed a musky odor coming from her husband, Les.
To her surprise, at a local support group meeting, she caught the familiar scent once again, hanging over the group like a cloud.
At first, Milne thought the smell was a result of bad hygiene and badgered her husband to take longer showers. But when the smell persisted, Milne learned to live with it, not wanting to hurt her husband's feelings.
Twelve years after she first noticed the "woodsy" smell, Les was diagnosed at the age of 44 with Parkinson's Disease, a neurodegenerative condition characterized by lack of dopamine production and loss of movement. Parkinson's Disease currently affects more than 10 million people worldwide.
Milne spent the next several years believing the strange smell was exclusive to her husband. But to her surprise, at a local support group meeting in 2012, she caught the familiar scent once again, hanging over the group like a cloud. Stunned, Milne started to wonder if the smell was the result of Parkinson's Disease itself.
Milne's discovery led her to Dr. Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Together, Milne, Kunath, and a host of other scientists would use Milne's unusual sense of smell to develop a new diagnostic test, now in development and poised to revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson's Disease.
"Joy was in the audience during a talk I was giving on my work, which has to do with Parkinson's and stem cell biology," Kunath says. "During the patient engagement portion of the talk, she asked me if Parkinson's had a smell to it." Confused, Kunath said he had never heard of this – but for months after his talk he continued to turn the question over in his mind.
Kunath knew from his research that the skin's microbiome changes during different disease processes, releasing metabolites that can give off odors. In the medical literature, diseases like melanoma and Type 2 diabetes have been known to carry a specific scent – but no such connection had been made with Parkinson's. If people could smell Parkinson's, he thought, then it stood to reason that those metabolites could be isolated, identified, and used to potentially diagnose Parkinson's by their presence alone.
First, Kunath and his colleagues decided to test Milne's sense of smell. "I got in touch with Joy again and we designed a protocol to test her sense of smell without her having to be around patients," says Kunath, which could have affected the validity of the test. In his spare time, Kunath collected t-shirt samples from people diagnosed with Parkinson's and from others without the diagnosis and gave them to Milne to smell. In 100 percent of the samples, Milne was able to detect whether a person had Parkinson's based on smell alone. Amazingly, Milne was even able to detect the "Parkinson's scent" in a shirt from the control group – someone who did not have a Parkinson's diagnosis, but would go on to be diagnosed nine months later.
From the initial study, the team discovered that Parkinson's did have a smell, that Milne – inexplicably – could detect it, and that she could detect it long before diagnosis like she had with her husband, Les. But the experiments revealed other things that the team hadn't been expecting.
"One surprising thing we learned from that experiment was that the odor was always located in the back of the shirt – never in the armpit, where we expected the smell to be," Kunath says. "I had a chance meeting with a dermatologist and he said the smell was due to the patient's sebum, which are greasy secretions that are really dense on your upper back. We have sweat glands, instead of sebum, in our armpits." Patients with Parkinson's are also known to have increased sebum production.
With the knowledge that a patient's sebum was the source of the unusual smell, researchers could go on to investigate exactly what metabolites were in the sebum and in what amounts. Kunath, along with his associate, Dr. Perdita Barran, collected and analyzed sebum samples from 64 participants across the United Kingdom. Once the samples were collected, Barran and others analyzed it using a method called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, or GS-MC, which separated, weighed and helped identify the individual compounds present in each sebum sample.
Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"The compounds we've identified in the sebum are not unique to people with Parkinson's, but they are differently expressed," says Barran, a professor of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester. "So this test we're developing now is not a black-and-white, do-you-have-something kind of test, but rather how much of these compounds do you have compared to other people and other compounds." The team identified over a dozen compounds that were present in the sebum of Parkinson's patients in much larger amounts than the control group.
Using only the GC-MS and a sebum swab test, Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"At the moment, a clinical diagnosis is based on the patient's physical symptoms," Barran says, and determining whether a patient has Parkinson's is often a long and drawn-out process of elimination. "Doctors might say that a group of symptoms looks like Parkinson's, but there are other reasons people might have those symptoms, and it might take another year before they're certain," Barran says. "Some of those symptoms are just signs of aging, and other symptoms like tremor are present in recovering alcoholics or people with other kinds of dementia." People under the age of 40 with Parkinson's symptoms, who present with stiff arms, are often misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, she adds.
Additionally, by the time physical symptoms are present, Parkinson's patients have already lost a substantial amount of dopamine receptors – about sixty percent -- in the brain's basal ganglia. Getting a diagnosis before physical symptoms appear would mean earlier interventions that could prevent dopamine loss and preserve regular movement, Barran says.
"Early diagnosis is good if it means there's a chance of early intervention," says Barran. "It stops the process of dopamine loss, which means that motor symptoms potentially will not happen, or the onset of symptoms will be substantially delayed." Barran's team is in the processing of streamlining the sebum test so that definitive results will be ready in just two minutes.
"What we're doing right now will be a very inexpensive test, a rapid-screen test, and that will encourage people to self-sample and test at home," says Barran. In addition to diagnosing Parkinson's, she says, this test could also be potentially useful to determine if medications were at a therapeutic dose in people who have the disease, since the odor is strongest in people whose symptoms are least controlled by medication.
"When symptoms are under control, the odor is lower," Barran says. "Potentially this would allow patients and clinicians to see whether their symptoms are being managed properly with medication, or perhaps if they're being overmedicated." Hypothetically, patients could also use the test to determine if interventions like diet and exercise are effective at keeping Parkinson's controlled.
"We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
Barran is now running another clinical trial – one that determines whether they can diagnose at an earlier stage and whether they can identify a difference in sebum samples between different forms of Parkinson's or diseases that have Parkinson's-like symptoms, such as Lewy Body Dementia.
"Within the next one to two years, we hope to be running a trial in the Manchester area for those people who do not have motor symptoms but are at risk for developing dementia due to symptoms like loss of smell and sleep difficulty," Barran says. "If we can establish that, we can roll out a test that determines if you have Parkinson's or not with those first pre-motor symptoms, and then at what stage. We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
But a definitive Parkinson's test, however revolutionary, would likely not be made available to the general population – at least, not for a while.
"We would likely first give this test to people who are at risk due to a genetic predisposition, or who are at risk based on prodomal symptoms, like people who suffer from a REM sleep disorder who have a 50 to 70 percent chance of developing Parkinson's within a ten year period," Barran says. "Those would be people who would benefit from early therapeutic intervention. For the normal population, it isn't beneficial at the moment to know until we have therapeutic interventions that can be useful."
Milne's husband, Les, passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2015. But thanks to him and the dedication of his wife, Joy, science may have found a way to someday prolong the lives of others with this devastating disease.
[Ed. Note: This hit article from our archives originally ran on September 3, 2019.]
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.