Jeff Rowe, Editor, Future Care

Jeff Rowe is the editor of Future Care and a veteran healthcare journalist and blogger who has reported extensively on initiatives to improve the healthcare system at the local, regional and national level.

Researchers work to tap odors for diagnostic insights

May 3, 2017 AT 10:04 PM

Can you smell if someone’s sick?  

If taken on the level of, say, home remedy medicine, one might be inclined to say, “Yes.”  But a number of companies are using AI and analytics technologies to see if they can pinpoint a method of using odor as a precise indicator of illness.

According to an article in the New York Timesdevelopers in England and Israel have begun testing their diagnostic tools in the clinical setting with some success—including one professor who recently published a study showing that his tool could accurately diagnose 17 different conditions based on breath samples.

Moreover, closer to home, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are working to develop a prototype that uses odors in blood plasma to recognize ovarian cancer.

“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,” said Billy Boyle, co-founder and president of operations at Owlstone, a manufacturer of chemical sensors in Cambridge, England.

Mr. Boyle, an electronics engineer, formed his company in 2004 to develop sensors to detect chemical weapons and explosives for customers, but when his soon-to-be wife, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, his focus shifted to medical sensors, with an emphasis on cancer detection.

Similarly, an Israeli chemical engineer, Hossam Haick, was also touched by cancer.

“My college roommate had leukemia, and it made me want to see whether a sensor could be used for treatment,” said Mr. Haick, a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, told the Times. “But then I realized early diagnosis could be as important as treatment itself.”

His smelling machine uses an array of sensors composed of gold nanoparticles or carbon nanotubes. They are coated with ligands, molecular receptors that have a high affinity for certain biomarkers of disease found in exhaled breath.

The upshot? Years from now, machines may be able to diagnose diseases like cancer simply by analyzing a patient’s smell.