super nose smells disease

Joy Milne has a unique gift – she can smell when someone is sick. She says Parkinson’s disease is a musky smell, Cancer is earthy and Alzheimer’s smells like vanilla.

Joy believes her super smelling talent is down to the fact that she has the neurological condition syantheasia. This means she can see and taste smells.  

Joy who lives in Perth, Scotland, first discovered her super-smelling talent when she noticed that her husband Les was smelling strange.  He insisted he was washing well so she let it lie but a few years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson disease. 

Then when Joy and her husband attended a Parkinson’s support group, something very strange happened – Joy noticed that all the people had the same greasy smell as her husband. 

Joy who is a retired nurse mentioned her observation to a neurobiologist Tilo Kunath, who studies Parkinson’s at the University of Edinburgh. He was so intrigued he set Joy a test. He asked Joy to smell a set of identical T-shirts, some belonging to sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, some not. Joy managed to identify all the sufferers although she did name one extra person who didn’t have the disease. When 8 months later that man was diagnosed with the disease, Kunath knew Joy’s nose was special. Dogs are known to be able to smell cancer in humans, but it had not been known that a human could smell Parkinson’s. 

“When this false-positive turned out to be a true positive, that was a jaw-dropping moment. We couldn’t believe it Joy was telling us this person had Parkinson’s before anyone knew.” says Kunath. 

There is no cure for Parkinson’s but the earlier the condition can be diagnosed the better the disease can be managed. So Kunath set to work using Joy’s incredible nose to identify biomarkers for the disease. Teaming up with researchers at the University of Manchester, England they are developing a test that has the potential to diagnose Pakinson’s month’s earlier than the traditional observation of shakes and tremors. 

And the use of Joy’s incredible super-smelling nose doesn’t stop there. She recently travelled to Tanzania to help a charity that trains giant African rats to detect TB. To Joy tuberculosis has a distinctive harsh smell. 

“Joy can tell us things in a day, whereas a rat would take months. She could really speed up our work.” says the charity APOPO’s CEO Christophe Cox.

Joy’s husband passed away in 2015 but she has found some kind of peace in her newly discovered ability. 
 “It isn’t an easy thing to do, to sniff a disease. But it’s hard to watch the person you love being destroyed by something that no one can do anything about and I don’t want other families to suffer the way our family suffered,” she says. “We humans have turned our back on our sense of smell. We should be using it more.”

Source: New Scientist March 2019

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