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By a Nose: Following a Scent to Diagnose Earlier

What if physicians had a way to trace the scent of a specific medical problem, literally? Scientists around the world are working hard to make this a real possibility.

Just as individuals have unique strands of DNA and their own special set of fingerprints, they also have an “odorprint” or “odortype”—a smell unlike that of any other person. These markers are a blend of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) or chemical species, that are found in our breath and bodily fluids. The combinations of VOCs that occur together when a person is sick vary from disease to disease. This means that scientists and engineers are beginning to identify diseases on the basis of their odortypes in the same way you can guess the name of the classmate who forgot to shower again but left the room before you arrived.

British manufacturer Owlstone is already testing and developing instruments that analyze breath and other clinical samples to detect VOC biomarkers indicative of conditions like asthma, tuberculosis, and colorectal cancers among others. Owlstone co-founder and president, Billy Boyle was inspired to work on these technologies after his wife died of a cancer that might have been detected earlier.

Technion-Israel Institute professor, Hossam Haick, a chemical engineer, is also working on a VOC-detection method for diagnosing illnesses. He was motivated by a college roommate’s leukemia. So far, the “smelling machine” he created has identified 17 different diseases in a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are trying to develop odor-based technology to diagnose ovarian cancer, which is known as a silent killer due to its frequently late detection. They are using blood plasma as their clinical sample because it’s less likely to be contaminated by confounding factors than breath or urine.

An early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death for patients suffering from terminal illnesses. The symptoms of one disease can mimic those of another, further complicating things. These new technologies are a cause for optimism.