Researchers Are Developing Machines to Smell How Healthy You Are

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How you smell may soon give your doctor — using a fine-tuned, odor-assessing machine — a comprehensive portrait of how healthy you are.

Several manufacturers are working today to develop an instrument that can make a diagnosis of diabetes, cancer, infectious disease and other common ailments, according to news reports.

One of Owlstone’s devices is this cancer-detecting machine that analyzes a person’s breath by acting as an “electronic nose.” Credit: Aviva/YouTube

“You’re seeing a convergence of technology now, so we can actually run large-scale clinical studies to get the data to prove odor analysis has real utility,” Billy Boyle, co-founder and President of Operations at Owlstone, a device manufacturing company, told the New York Times.

Owlstone, which is currently recruiting patients to take part in a “lung cancer indicator detection” trial, recently received a more than $23 million investment in its proprietary Breath Biopsy technology, used for diagnostic testing.

With the recent investment, the Cambridge-based manufacturing firm took a step closer to realizing its goal of “saving 100,000 lives and $1.5 billion in health care costs” with its disease-testing breathalyzer technology, according to Boyle.

The clinical trial, which received funding from England’s National Health Service, is seeking to enroll 3,000 patients. It uses a cutting-edge, odor-sensing technology that can accurately assess the numerous distinct molecules contained in a scent.

The permeability of the technology gives its developers the ability to tease out different chemical analyses. For example, the company is also conducting trials on colorectal cancer and asthma.

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“You can program what you want to sniff out just by changing the software,” Boyle told the New York Times. “We can use the device for our own trials on colorectal cancer, but it can also be used by our partners to look for other things, like irritable bowel disease.”

Previous efforts to use a whiff of scent to detect disease has centered on man’s best friend — that is, dogs that are adept at sniffing out all sorts of maladies, including bladder, kidney and prostate cancers.

Yet cancer-sniffing dogs demand laborious training and a sizable financial outlay, which means the dog-as-detector method may not work in the real world.

That’s why researchers are turning to machines — they’re accurate, fast and highly reproducible. A host of other studies involving odor-sensing devices are currently underway, including one funded by the Monell Center in Philadelphia that’s assessing ways to detect ovarian cancer using blood plasma.

“I think the fact that you’re seeing so much activity both in commercial and academic settings shows that we’re getting a lot closer,” Cristina Davis, a professor at the University of California, Davis, told the New York Times.

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In February, the Monell Center received more than $800,000 to identify a “characteristic odor that can be used to detect early-stage ovarian cancer.”

Researchers there believe scent-based technology holds vast promise in improving health outcomes due to the possibility of early detection.

“Currently, most ovarian cancers have grown to the size of an onion by the time they are diagnosed,” said Dr. George Preti, a chemist with the Monell Center. “Our goal is to harness information from the released odors to create a sensitive diagnostic scanner that can detect this deadly disease when it is the size of a peppercorn and the five-year survival rate is greater than 90 percent.”

The healthcare industry waits with bated breath.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.