Odour test sniffs out hard-to-detect cancers

Tuesday, 15 June, 2021

Odour test sniffs out hard-to-detect cancers

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed an odour-based test that sniffs out vapours emanating from blood samples and which is able to distinguish between benign, pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells with up to 95% accuracy.

The Penn-developed tool uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to decipher the mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitting off cells in blood plasma samples, and could therefore serve as a non-invasive approach to screen for harder-to-detect cancers, such as pancreatic and ovarian. The team’s findings were presented by Professor AT Charlie Johnson at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting on 4 June.

The electronic olfaction (‘e-nose’) system is equipped with nanosensors calibrated to detect the composition of VOCs, which all cells emanate. Previous studies from the researchers demonstrated that VOCs released from tissue and plasma from ovarian cancer patients are distinct from those released from samples of patients with benign tumours.

The technology’s pattern recognition approach is similar to the way people’s own sense of smell works, where a distinct mixture of compounds tells the brain what it’s smelling. The tool was trained and tested to identify the VOC patterns more associated with cancer cells and those associated with cells from healthy blood samples in 20 minutes or less.

Among 93 patients, the vapour sensors discriminated the VOCs from ovarian cancer with 95% accuracy and pancreatic cancer with 90% accuracy. The tool also correctly identified all patients (a total of eight) with early-stage cancers.

“It’s an early study but the results are very promising,” Prof Johnson said. “The data shows we can identify these tumours 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.”

The Penn research team is currently working with VOC Health to commercialise the device, along with others, for research and clinical applications. The team’s collaboration with Richard Postrel, CEO and Chief Innovation Officer of VOC Health, has also led to an improvement in detection speed by 20-fold.

“Collaborating with researchers from the department of Physics and Astronomy, the Perelman School of Medicine and Penn Vet has allowed us to perfect and integrate our own innovations — expediting the commercialisation process,” Postrel said. “Initial prototypes of commercial devices able to detect cancer from liquids and vapours will be ready soon and be provided to these Penn researchers to further their work.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/happyvector071

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