Scientists learn to smell diseases

2014-03-19 11:56

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Cape Town - Scientists believe that we may soon be able to smell diseases and this will lead to early detections, there are possibilities of creating electronic machines that smell disease such as breast cancer instead of using mammograms.

According to the BBC many cancer sufferers and relatives have told of stories where they could actually smell odours of decay that turned out to cancers. One woman alleged that she could smell a odour constantly that turned out to be her husband’s prostate cancer.


George Preti, from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre says that numerous people have the ability to smell certain diseases. The scientist also noted that various researchers and nurses have noted certain smells associated with some diseases.

Doctors have throughout history in their efforts to diagnose sniffed the fluids of their patients.

In research published in 2011 scientists illustrated “smelling notes” of a number of diseases.

Liver failure supposedly smells like raw fish, yellow fever smells like a meat shop, typhoid smells like brown bread that has been freshly baked.

Dogs, fruit flies

Diabetes smells like nail polish remover, a bladder infection smells like ammonia and scrofula smells like stale beer.

In a recent study done by a team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, lead scientist Mats Olsson showed evidence that people tend to give off a certain smell when they fall ill.

Olsson and his team dressed eight volunteers in clean cotton clothes. He injected four of the volunteers with a chemical that gave them a mild flu. He gave the other four volunteers a placebo.

Olsson then injected a solution into the volunteers a month later that were given the placebo. The volunteers were then asked to remove their t-shirts and the patches underneath their arm was cut off and squeezed into bottles.

Olsson then supplied the patches with puffs of air to a group of smelling volunteers who rated the smells in terms of unpleasantness, intensity and healthiness.

Those who were sick initially were found to smell adversely.

Olsson states that the study was very small but illustrated that individuals when sick give off a cue that acts as a contagion to warn others.

Studies like this help immensely in cancer research where early detection is vital. If the cancer were to give off a smell that can be recognisable at an early stage then the possibility of saving a person with cancer is increased.

Cancers cells have a different metabolism says Preti and emits a different odour that can hopefully be studied.

These odours could be too fine to smell by the ordinary human being but dogs have the ability to differentiate multiple types of cancers and even diabetes.

Human beings according to studies have about five million scent receptors, but dogs may have up to 300 million receptors.

In understanding the smell given off by ovarian cancer Preti is working with the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre, where dogs are trained to smell the odour given off by ovarian cancerous tissue.

Preti is hoping to identify the "odour signature" present in ovarian cancer that the dogs are able to smell.

Once the signature has been identified it can be used to programme the sensors in electronic devices or micro chips.

Dogs according to Preti are not the only animals that can smell cancers. Fruit flies also have an amazing ability to identify cancer odours.

Martin Strauch from the University of Konstanz in a recent paper noted that the scent present in cancer samples make a fruit fly's antennae move in a certain way.

Strauch wants to identify the specific receptors present in the antenna that picks up the cancerous smells.

The data taken from the study could then be used on electronic devices.
Read more on:    us  |  animals  |  health

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