Medical researchers are on the verge of being able to use an inexpensive odor sensor to detect an individual’s medical diagnosis.  These sensors are considered a quick, reliable and noninvasive way to make a clinical diagnosis. Billy Boyle, co-founder and president of operations at Owlstone, a manufacturer in Cambridge, England of chemical sensors, told the New York Times (nytimes.com) recently that “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.” Mr. Boyle created the company with two friends in 2004 originally to detect chemical weapons and explosives for clients. He shifted his focus after his girlfriend was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, to looking for ways to detect cancer early.

The British National Health Service is funding a clinical trial with 3,000 participants to test Owlstone’s odor sensors in the detection of lung cancer.  Owlstone has raised $23.5 million to make it a viable tool for clinicians to use when they are seeking a medical diagnosis. The sensor is a silicon chip stacked with layers of metal and tiny gold electrodes, and looks like a cell phone SIM card. It works as a chemical filter. Molecules are given a charge, ionized, and then an electrical current sends the chemicals through channels in the chip to pinpoint the diagnosis.

A researcher in Israel has also found success in his research into whether a sensor can be used for detection of medical diseases.  Israeli chemical engineer Hossam Haick and his colleagues have created a smelling machine using an array of sensors that are composed of gold nanoparticles, and coated with molecular receptors that have a high affinity for certain biomarkers. So far Mr. Haick and his team of researchers have succeeded in distinguishing 17 diseases with up to 86 percent accuracy.

Researchers in the United States are also working to advance work on a prototype odor sensor at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Specifically this team of researchers has received grant money to detect ovarian cancer in samples of blood plasma. Other teams around the world including Austria, Japan and Switzerland are doing similar research. “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,” said Cristina Davis, a bioengineer at University of California, who is also developing an odor sensor to diagnose diseases. She told the New York Times that “my estimate is it’s a three to five year time frame,” before researchers will successfully develop odor sensor tools for clinicians.

New York Times, “One day, a machine will smell whether you’re sick,” by Kate Murphy, May 8, 2017

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