If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The ability to fly? To be invisible? Super strength? Super speed?
How about super smell?
No takers? I understand, it’s not the most appealing power. But maybe it’s the most realistic.
Meet Joy Milne. She’s, to my knowledge, the world’s first real superhero (we’re excluding firefighters, police, mothers, and the like for lack of actual superhuman abilities). Now Joy can’t fly faster than a speeding bullet. She can’t stop a train with an outstretched forearm or make breakfast with her mind, but boy, can she smell.
Joy’s wonder-nose has a knack for sniffing out Parkinson’s disease, and it’s pretty remarkable. In a test designed to measure the limits of her olfactory powers, she correctly diagnosed eleven out of twelve patients by sniffing their T-shirts, identifying all six Parkinson’s patients and misdiagnosing one control patient as having the disease when he didn't.
Except eight months later, that control patient was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. So she wasn’t eleven for twelve, she was twelve for twelve. Perfect accuracy. And so acute that she detected the disease long before doctors had a clue it had taken root.
This is all absurd and unbelievable and cool, but what does it mean? Does Joy have to quit her day job and roam the planet in search of a dastardly Parkinsonian odor?
No—luckily, there’s science to avoid that unrealistic (albeit entertaining) possibility. See, smells are really just molecules wafting through the air and into our noses, among other places. High inside the nose we have a patch of neurons called the olfactory sensory neurons, which have small hair-like projections called cilia that bind to those odor molecules. The binding triggers the neuron and lets your brain know to perceive the smell.
Joy’s cilia have a special affinity towards the molecules leaping off of patients with Parkinson’s, and that’s led doctors to the realization that Parkinson’s has a uniquely odorous molecular signature. To find out what that signature is, they gathered the shirts from their shirt-sniffing experiment and analyzed them for differences in molecular hitchhikers. Sure enough, the shirts of the Parkinson’s patients revealed a distinctly Parkinson’s odor molecule.
So there’s the ‘super’ in ‘superhero.’ Here's the ‘hero.’ Currently, we diagnose Parkinson’s the way Dr. Parkinson himself diagnosed it: We observe patients and wait for symptoms. This method is terribly inefficient, leaving almost no time to organize a treatment plan for affected patients, and making it difficult for those patients to participate in research for a cure.
The discovery Joy made possible could make diagnosing Parkinson’s as easy as swabbing a patient’s forehead in an annual check-up. Doctors could analyze the swab for traces of the Parkinson’s molecule and let the patient know their diagnosis within a few days, long before symptoms show. Doctors and patients would have ample time to develop a treatment program; patients could get involved in research to test the effectiveness of treatment before the disease has progressed; and patients and families would be able to better prepare for the onset of symptoms mentally, financially, and otherwise.
All in a day’s work for our super sniffer.
(Here you can see her with a scientific sidekick in an interview with BBC News Scotland.) Cue the theme music.