News Highlights - March News

Welcome to my second round-up of science news, this time featuring items that caught my attention in March. As always, I’ll provide a link to the article and to any relevant scientific papers, where available.

My first article involves my favourite analytical chemistry technique – mass spectrometry (see Intro to Analytical Chemistry for a summary). A team led by Professor Perdita Barran at the University of Manchester have been working on a rapid swab test for the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Prof Barran’s group have developed the technique after being contacted by retired nurse, Joy Milne, who can smell when someone has Parkinson’s. In 2019, the team at Manchester published their research identifying some of the compounds found in sebum (an oily substance produced by the skin) that create the odour Joy can detect. Armed with the information that markers are present in skin secretions, in February and March they published reports detailing two analytical methods they have developed that may allow the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s, by comparing the sebum of healthy volunteers to that of patients with the disease.

Across all three trials, a total of 498 participants gave samples of skin sebum (381 who were had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and 117 control volunteers), and the techniques gave an overall accuracy for detecting the samples from patients with Parkinson’s disease of over 80%. The two techniques developed look for different compounds that can indicate that a participant has Parkinson’s disease. Volatile components (those that

GC-MS Chromatogram
A GC-MS chromatogram of volatile compounds (not related to the article)

evaporate easily – likely to be what Joy can smell on people with the condition) can be detected using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) being used to look for changes in the lipids (fats) in the sebum and identify metabolites that can indicate Parkinson’s disease. These fascinating developments have the potential to lead to a faster, non-invasive test for Parkinson’s disease to help patients get treatment at an earlier stage of the condition.

News article links:

Scientific papers: Trivedi, D. K. et al., (2019). Discovery of volatile biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease from sebum. ACS Cent Sci. 5 (4), 599-606,

Sinclair, E. et al., (2021). Validating differential volatilome profiles in Parkinson’s disease. ACS Cent Sci. 7 (2), 300-306,

Sinclair, E. et al., (2021). Metabolomics of sebum reveals lipid dysregulation in Parkinson’s disease. Nature Communications. 12, 1592,

In other news, a team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a novel use for plastic bags – turning them into fabrics. Polyethylene, the material that plastic bags are made from, doesn’t absorb water, so you might think that it wouldn’t work well as a textile. The researchers found, however, that in spinning and weaving the plastic into yarn the surface of the material was changed (undergoing oxidation, for those of you who are interested in the chemical terms) so that it would attract water. This discovery, along with the formation of capillaries when the fibres were woven into strands of yarn, meant that the resulting fabric would wick sweat and water – in fact, the tests that the team performed indicated that their new fabric was better at wicking and evaporating water than cotton, nylon and polyester.

Plastic carrier bags
Plastic bags - the textile of the future?

The ability to recycle existing plastics into this textile, combined with the potential to use dry dyes and reduced washing temperatures and times – polyethylene doesn’t easily get dirty – may mean that this development could herald more environmentally friendly fabrics for athletic clothing and military uniforms. One aspect that occurs to me that could be a downside to this discovery is the question of microplastics released from clothing during washing cycles – shorter cycles and less frequent washing may reduce this potential but an increase in use of plastic based textiles needs to be monitored in this respect. Overall, though, this discovery seems like it has the potential to have significant environmental benefits.

News article link:

Scientific paper: Alberghini, M. et al., (2021). Sustainable polyethylene fabrics with engineered moisture transport for passive cooling. Nature Sustainability.

That’s all for this month, check back next month for some more science news and if you see any news articles you’d like to share with me, please get in touch.