Using Smell To Detect Cancer And Other Diseases

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Researchers have found that a particular odour-sniffing machine has been proven to be as good as a mammogram in the detection of breast cancer.

A poster on an online support forum for cancer patients posted that she became aware of an odour similar to decay when her husband suffered from cancer of the prostate. The smell went away when the cancer went away. However, a few years ago, the smell returned. This time, she found out that she had lung cancer.

This is not always the case with cancer patients, but according to George Preti from the Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, several people have written to him about this same experience. Many of the communications were from researchers and nurses, but the majority are anecdotal reports.

Doctors have been known to smell their patients’ urine, stool, bodily fluids and breath to aid with their diagnoses. A review article published during 2011 features ‘smelling notes’ of a range of diseases. Liver failure is said to smell like raw fish, typhoid like freshly baked brown bread and yellow fever like a butcher’s shop.

Mats Olsson from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm used eight healthy volunteers dressed in tight, cotton T-shirts as part of his study. He injected half of this group with a chemical and the other half with a placebo that incited mild flu-like symptoms. One month later, the participants returned and were injected with the other solution, not the one they received earlier. All the T-shirts were collected; the underarm section cut out and placed in squeeze bottles. The bottles were used to offer a volunteer panel a puff of air. They were asked to rate the T-shirt smells by intensity, healthiness and unpleasantness. The end result was that the supposed sick group have a more averse smell.

Mats Olsson believes that the interesting new factor to his T-shirt test is the ability of humans to sniff out disease in its early stages.

Early detection of cancer is crucial to patients. However, the symptoms that prompt the patient to visit their doctor are normally only detected once the disease has advanced. Cancerous cells have a different odour to normal cells. It may prove to be too subtle for human noses, but dogs have been trained to identify different types of cancer and diabetes.

Four dogs are currently being trained by the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in a bid to detect ovarian cancer tissues.

Image credit: liz west

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