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.