Doctors say the mum-of-three has the unique skills to detect the crippling condition early – and help preventative treatment.
During lab tests the 65-year-old - dubbed a ‘super-smeller’ - was able to identify people with Parkinson’s just from sniffing t-shirts they had slept in.
Her husband died earlier this year following a 20-year battle with the degenerative nervous system condition.
Now the grandmother-of-seven is the inspiration behind new research after telling Edinburgh researcher Dr Tilo Kunath she recognised a change in smell when her husband developed Parkinson’s.
The woman said: “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.
“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.”
Now medical researchers are trying to identify small molecules on the skin of sufferers that is unique to people in the early stages of the debilitating condition – which could slow the symptoms.
Parkinson’s disease affects 127,000 people in Britain - around one in 500 of the population, leaving them struggling to walk, speak and sleep.
It has no cure or definitive diagnostic test – but Joy only noticed something was wrong with her husband because he was no longer any good at playing darts.
Researchers believe that Parkinson’s may affect a change in the sebum – an oily substance in the skin – of people with the condition that results in a unique and subtle odour on the skin only detectable by people with an acute sense of smell.
The charity Parkinson’s UK is now funding researchers at Manchester, Edinburgh and London to study around 200 people with and without the condition.
They hope to confirm findings from a pilot study by the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh involving 24 people, which suggested that Parkinson’s can be identified by odour alone.
Professor Perdita Barran and her team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, based at The University of Manchester, will use state-of-the-art mass spectrometry technology to analyse skin swabs taken from people with and without Parkinson’s.
The researchers plan to extract, analyse and identify small molecule components taken from the skin to identify specific biomarkers found in Parkinson’s.
They will also be using ‘human detectors’- people with exceptional smelling abilities – in a bid to pinpoint the unique odour.
Prof Barran said: “The sampling of the skin surface will provide a rich source of metabolites which we can mine to distinguish healthy patients from those in the early stages of Parkinson’s.
“We are excited to embark on this biomarker discovery project.
“It is hoped that these results could lead to the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test that may have the ability to diagnose early Parkinson’s – possibly even before physical symptoms occur.”
Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, added: “Funding pioneering studies like this has the potential to throw Parkinson’s into a completely new light.
“It’s very early days in the research, but if it’s proved there is a unique odour associated with Parkinson’s, particularly early on in the condition, it could have a huge impact.
“Not just on early diagnosis, but it would also make it a lot easier to identify people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop Parkinson’s, something no current drug can achieve.”