Typical approaches to diagnosing prostate cancer can be costly and invasive. Furthermore, a large number of prostate cancers are low-grade and won't result in symptoms or death, meaning that without necessarily extending it, aggressive forms of treatment can impact a sufferer's quality of life. In an attempt to establish a less invasive method of detecting the condition, Finnish researchers have developed an electronic nose capable of sniffing the patient's urine sample to distinguish between prostate cancer and benign disease.

The potential of smell as a diagnostics tool first emerged in the 1980s following reports of dogs capable of detecting cancer in their owners. Subsequent experimental studies demonstrated that indeed, trained sniffer dogs could detect cancer, though the value of this approach was questionable due to the unreliable performance of the canines. While a dog's role in sniffing out cancer is limited, it has provided inspiration for the development of various electronic sensors to serve the same purpose, such as that produced at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in 2010.

The ChemPro 100–eNose device developed by the researchers at the Department of Vascular Surgery, Tampere University Hospital in Finland uses a cluster of nonspecific sensors to produce a profile or "smell print." Citing preliminary data indicating the detection of malignancies was possible by sniffing the urine headspace, (space directly above a urine sample), the team conducted a clinical study comprising 65 patients.

Of that number, 50 had been diagnosed with prostate cancer via biopsy, while 15 had been diagnosed with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Using the eNose to examine the urine headspace of samples provided by the patients, the device demonstrated an ability to distinguish prostate cancer from BPH, correctly identified 78 percent of cancer sufferers and 67 percent of those with BPH. The researchers say these results are comparable to those produced by testing prostate specific antigen (PSA), a common approach to detecting the cancer.

The team is now hoping to conduct further studies to improve the technology so molecules behind the distinct odors can be accurately identified.

The research findings were published in The Journal of Urology.