Researchers Investigate if Woman Can Smell Parkinson's Disease

Joy Milne believed she could smell her husband's Parkinson's disease.

— -- Researchers from the UK-based Parkinson's Foundation are hoping that one woman's powerful sense of smell will help them find a breakthrough for diagnosing patients with Parkinson's disease.

Twenty years ago Joy Milne noticed a specific kind of smell whenever her husband Les Milne was around.

"I’ve always had a keen sense of smell and I detected very early on that there was a very subtle change in how Les smelled," she said in a statement Thursday. "It’s hard to describe but it was a heavy, slightly musky aroma. I had no idea that this was unusual and hadn’t been recognised before."

When Les Milne was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Joy Milne didn't realize the smell could have come from the illness until she saw multiple stories about diseases that have been identified by smell.

Joy Milne talked to researcher Dr. Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh about the distinctive smell.

“Tilo was interested and together we worked out ways to see if I could detect it from other people with Parkinson’s and not just Les," Milne said in her statement.

In an early pilot study with 24 people, Joy Milne was able to discern who had the disease and who did not nearly 100 percent of the time. Researchers are hoping they can definitively report that smell can be a way to diagnose the disease, according to the Parkinson's Foundation.

In a new study involving 200 subjects, researchers will look at the skin swabs of subjects for specific molecules that cause a distinctive smell. The study also includes "human detectors" who will use their noses to discern which subjects have the disease. If researchers discover a specific "biomarker" that indicates Parkinson's, it could mean helping patients get diagnosed and treated more quickly.

Milne said she's excited about the possibility that the study could revolutionize how the disease is diagnosed and said her husband, who died this year, would be thrilled.

“Les was really supportive of the research and he was confident that an early diagnosis could mean earlier treatment," she said in a statement. "He’d be thrilled to know that this research has the potential to help make other people’s lives better."

James Beck, vice president of the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, told ABC News it would be "revolutionary" if the smell study was proven to be accurate.

"Even the best individuals, highly trained individuals...are right 90 percent of the time and maybe even less," he said.

Beck said early symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including constipation and loss of sense of smell, are similar to other diseases and not always specific to Parkinson's. However, slowed movement, rigid muscles and impaired posture and balance, while specific to Parkinson's diesease can still make it hard to diagnose the disease.

While Beck said the possibility was exciting, he cautioned that the study was just starting and urged anyone with questions about diagnosis or treatment to visit the Parkinson's Disease Foundation website.