Electronic nose accurately sniffs out cancer in blood samples

June 7, 2021
Electronic nose accurately sniffs out cancer in blood samples

An electronic nose (e-nose) has been co-developed by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, US, that was able sniff out signs of cancer – including ovarian and pancreatic cancer – from blood plasma samples. In studies, the e-nose detected different, hard-to-diagnose cancers with over 90% accuracy.

In short, the e-nose uses algorithms that had previously been trained to associate specific volatile organic compound (VOC) combinations with the cancers, and even what stage of progression they were at and whether they were benign or not.

[VOCs are chemicals that are responsible for odours, with different sources releasing different mixtures. Sensitive instruments i.e. the nose can detect subtle differences in the makeup and ratio of these VOCs and identify the source.]

Previously, many researchers have investigated how VOCs given off by cancer could be detected as part of a diagnostic system: sniffer dogs and electronic devices have shown promise in detecting lung, stomach, oesophagus, and head and neck cancers, and even signs of prostate cancer in urine samples.

The new e-nose, then, was able to detect ovarian cancer with 95% accuracy, and pancreatic cancer with 90% accuracy, in a test sample of 93 individuals. Of those, it picked out all eight patients who had early-stage cancers, suggesting it could be useful as an early diagnostic tool.

“The data shows we can identify these tumors at both advanced and the earliest stages, which is exciting,” said Penn’s Dr. Charlie Johnson. “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.”

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