Science can now sniff out cancer. Literally.
For years, scientists have been working on technology that could use the same kind of sensors we have in our noses, to pick out tiny signs of ovarian cancer hiding in women's breath.
Most techniques for diagnosing cancer are currently expensive, time-consuming, and in some cases, invasive. But the "electronic nose" developed by a team of researchers in Israel would hasten this process and only require the patient to exhale.
The story of the electronic nose goes back a few years, when researchers began to develop profiles of breath compounds that "smell like cancer." That doesn't mean that a doctor can necessarily smell your sickness when she's giving you a throat check, but the advanced technology used olfactory inputs – the same thing our noses use – on a very advanced level. In fact, it required such a large number of sensors that the "nose" was too bulky and impractical to use in all but the most specialized doctor's offices.
Hossam Haick and his researchers sought to fix that by making a much smaller nose (RIP, Michael Jackson). In the U.S., George Preti and a team of researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center have also been studying smells and their associated diseases, for more than 40 years, as reported in The New York Times in 2013. They, too, have been working on making a nose machine to detect ovarian cancer-associated smells, but the Israeli team has, it seems, made a bit more progress.
They tested the new system on 43 volunteers, 17 of whom had ovarian cancer. The new nose had an 82 percent accuracy rate, and the researchers are working to improve it even more. They are hoping that it will eventually be useful for spotting other diseases as well, though ovarian cancer's link to smell is the best-studied.
This is an especially critical disease to understand diagnostically, because it is so deadly. Many women are not diagnosed until the cancer is at a very late stage, and has often spread. The 5-year survival rate for these late-term diagnoses is between 17 percent and 39 percent.
The findings were published in the American Chemical Society's journal, Nano Letters.