You Have Skin Cancer, I Can Smell It

Dermatologists pride themselves on making a diagnosis just by looking. But what if I could diagnose skin cancer with my eyes closed? It might be possible thanks to my friend here.

Inspired by studies of dogs using scent to detect cancers, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia sought to uncover what scent dogs pick up on that might lead them to find skin cancer. First they used special assays to identify volatile chemicals on the skin that can be detected as smells. They found a hundred distinct compounds that could be potential smells (for those with a much more sensitive sense of smell than ours). They then sampled 11 patients with a common skin cancer, called basal cell carcinoma, and 11 patients without skin cancer. They found that one scent, dimethylsulfone, increased while another, 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, decreased in the patients with skin cancer as compared to the controls.

The researchers also found that certain smells were associated with age differences. They attributed some of these age related changes to accumulation of foods and of products used on the skin for years. It has often been said that we are what we eat. Apparently, we can now identify specific smells to prove it. (As I can tell you from the guy on the treadmill next to me in the gym this morning, garlic is one food that is definitely detectable as a skin odor.)

The next step in the research will be to see whether or not different odors can predict if someone has a basal cell carcinoma, even if it has not been discovered clinically. These studies have not been done yet but will likely be done in the near future. Using a hand held smelling device to find a skin cancer sounds a little like Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, but it might just be how we practice medicine in the future. Although I doubt technologies will completely replace physical exams to diagnose disease, they will certainly make physicians much more accurate and efficient.  It might be analogous to the way CT scans or MRIs are used to find cancers by imaging the body.

With skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma, early detection could mean a much less invasive treatment to remove the skin cancer, even avoiding surgery in some cases. If similar scent detection could find deadly melanoma in its early stages, then it might mean curing a patient with simple surgery rather than finding it too late when nothing can be done to treat it.

Photo: Bazusa

8 thoughts on “You Have Skin Cancer, I Can Smell It”

  1. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “lab test”. 🙂

  2. I believe it 100%. I have one very small spot on the top of my forehead that one of my cats regularly sniffs at. The skin has suddenly changed to an odd texture there as well. Yes, I will be getting it checked out soon; it’ll be interesting to see if I’ve got some cancerous or precancerous cells there.

  3. I am very impressed by your site and blog.
    I am just beginning mine and among running a small public company (ImmuneRegen Biosciences) and other healthcare related companies, I don’t get to the blog as often as I would like. I am impressed by your blog’s upkeep.

    I guess I would update more often if there was more traffic to my blog. Hopefully having Cadence for Cancer visible on your site will assist in this. I am a longtime advocate for cancer research as we ourselves are developing modalities for treating the disease. Additionally, I am new to charitable fundraising, and am quite committed to doing so for the rest of my life.

    I will keep your blog in favorites and visit often.

  4. I’m not surprised. I remember one of those amazing animals type shows in which a dog kept sniffing his owner’s breast, then one day bit it hard, and while she was at the doctor’s for the bite she found out she had breast cancer and the lump was right where her dog had been nosing at her and finally bit her.

  5. Your dream is coming true. I read your entry with interest because I wrote an article about how Nanotechnology has developed sensors with the ability to “smell” cancer. Dogs sensing cancer were experimented in 2006 with over and 88% accuracy. Dogs are great but I don’t think anyone wants to go in for a biopsy based on diagnosis by one. Nanotechnology has created tools to also sense cancers with implements that were first used in the space program to “smell” for leaks.

  6. Does anyone know if there are any studies out there using hand smelling devices?

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