Medical

Electronic nose sniffs out cancer in blood samples with over 90% accuracy

Electronic nose sniffs out can...
A new electronic nose device can sniff out cancer with high accuracy
A new electronic nose device can sniff out cancer with high accuracy
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A new electronic nose device can sniff out cancer with high accuracy
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A new electronic nose device can sniff out cancer with high accuracy

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed an electronic nose (or e-nose) that may be able to sniff out signs of cancer from blood plasma samples. In tests, the device was able to detect a range of cancer types with over 90 percent accuracy.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that are responsible for odors, with different sources releasing different mixtures. Sensitive instruments – such as your schnozz – can detect subtle differences in the makeup and ratio of these VOCs and identify whether that odor is coffee or carnations.

Over the years, scientists have investigated how VOCs given off by cancer could be detected as part of a diagnostic system. Sniffer dogs have shown promise in detecting lung cancer on a patient’s breath, while electronic devices have since taken over to diagnose stomach, esophagus, and head and neck cancers, with promising results. Others have sniffed out signs of prostate cancer in urine samples.

For the new study, the researchers used an e-nose to analyze samples of blood plasma for signs of cancers that are normally hard to detect, like pancreatic and ovarian cancers. The device used algorithms that had previously been trained to associate specific VOC combinations with the different cancers, and even what stage of progression they were at and whether they were benign or not.

The team studied samples from 93 individuals – 20 with ovarian cancer, 20 with benign ovarian tumors, 13 with pancreatic cancer, 10 with benign pancreatic disease, and 30 age- and sex-matched controls.

And sure enough, the e-nose was able to detect ovarian cancer with 95 percent accuracy, and pancreatic cancer with 90 percent accuracy. Of those, it picked out all eight patients who had early-stage cancers, suggesting it could be useful as a diagnostic tool to catch the disease before it gets too bad.

“It’s an early study but the results are very promising,” says Charlie Johnson, co-author of the study. “The data shows we can identify these tumors at both advanced and the earliest stages, which is exciting. If developed appropriately for the clinical setting, this could potentially be a test that’s done on a standard blood draw that may be part of your annual physical.”

Of course it's worth keeping in mind that this study involved only a small cohort, so far more work will be needed to validate the results.

The research will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this week.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

3 comments
3 comments
pete-y
It would be of interest to have details of the type of e-nose that can achieve this. Is it simple or part of a mass spectrometer. P
michael_dowling
This would be great for spotting things like bowel cancer,which can grow to inoperable size before being detected. Tests for occult blood in stool samples are not too accurate,and the test itself is kind of gross.
paul314
The big deal isn't so much how many cancers it catches as how many non-cancers it flags. If this is going to be used as a screening tool, where 99+ percent of samples are from healthy people, you don't want to subject hundreds of thousands of patients to additional potentially invasive diagnostic tests (or to the stress that is known to shorten lifespan on its own).