August 20, 2008
Skin Cancer Detected As Airborne Chemical Profile

Here's a capability needed for Dr. McCoy's medical tricorder.

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20, 2008 Chemists today described the first identification of a specific "odor profile" for skin cancer, a discovery that could form the basis of a rapid, non-invasive test for diagnosing the most common type of cancer in the United States. The findings may enable doctors in the future to diagnose skin cancer quickly and accurately by waving a handheld scanner or sensor above the skin, they reported today at the 236th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Note how they refer to doctors of the future using scanners to detect skin cancer. But once the technology becomes cheap enough it would make much more sense to embed cancer detection sensors in bathrooms, living rooms, and bed rooms. Scanning for cancer should become a daily practice in order to allow cancer to get detected at the earliest possible stage in development.

The researchers have found distinct patterns in the airborne chemicals that evaporate off of the surface of normal and cancerous skin cells. They expect nano-sensors to eventually allow the development of compact sensing equipment.

To examine whether skin odors change in people with skin cancer, Gallagher and colleagues used advanced chromatography techniques to sample and analyze the air above tumor sites in 11 patients diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer with more than one million new cases every year. They compared the profile of chemicals detected above the tumor sites to profiles obtained from skin of 11 individuals without cancer.

"We found a different profile of chemicals above tumor sites relative to healthy skin," says Gallagher. "The same chemicals are present, but at skin cancer sites some chemicals are increased, while others are decreased compared to healthy individuals." She declined to give specific details about the chemicals found, noting that the researchers had applied for a patent on their technique.

The scientists eventually plan to identify a reliable "odor profile" of all three forms of skin cancer, including squamous cell cancer and melanoma, the deadliest form. If successful, the researchers hope to combine their method with emerging nano-sensor "electronic nose" technology designed to identify odorous chemicals. Gallagher envisions a wand-like "E-nose" that can be moved across the skin and will set off an alarm or beep when cancer is detected, similar to the fictional medical "tricorder" from Star Trek.

One can imagine beds, sinks, toilets, and other locations in a house will all some day have sensors embedded in them that detect a large assortment of diseases at very early stages. Early detection will reduce the total amount of accumulated damage and will make cures much easier for some diseases like cancer.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 20 10:48 PM  Biotech Assay Tools

Ned said at August 21, 2008 12:06 PM:

Some thoughts...

How were the controls obtained? Were they matched for age, race, site and degree of sun exposure? The best control would be the contralateral site from the cancer patient.

How do we know these patients really had cancer? Were they all biopsy-proven? Had there been previous surgery on any of the sites? What about people with (very common) inflammatory skin disorders? How did they do?

Were the people who interpreted the chemical profiles blinded as to which profiles originated from the cancers and which from the controls? What about a prospective study, especially one containing a large number of negatives?

Eleven is an awfully small number when basal cell carcinoma is so common. Why weren't more patients studied? Were the results statistically significant? At what level?

Jim said at August 21, 2008 3:46 PM:

Dogs have been shown to be able to smell cancer so I suppose this only makes sense.

This concept of an electronic nose is so 2007. :)


Randall Parker said at August 21, 2008 9:26 PM:


I've been disappointed that more hasn't been done with the results of the dog cancer detection research. Why not put the dogs to work on this?

I'm hoping that a nanotech sensor approach to cancer will mature fairly quickly because it can be made much more ubiquitous.

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