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Interviewee: Michelle Gallagher, Monell Chemical Senses Center
Detecting Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. and for chemist Michelle Gallagher, it hits close to home.
“Skin cancer actually affects a lot of people in my family, so it really made me excited to know that after what they had been through in their diagnosis of skin cancer, there could be in the future a much easier and less painful way to get their diagnosis,” says Gallagher.
Today, Gallagher presented the first odor profile for skin cancer at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. She conducted the study while working as a post-doctoral researcher under George Preti, also a chemist, at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. She now works for Rohm and Haas.
Gallagher and Preti were inspired by previous research reports that dogs, with their superior sniffing abilities, could be trained to detect the scent of cancer. First they studied what compounds are released into the air by healthy skin. Using an instrument that looks like an upside down martini glass, the researchers sampled the air above healthy skin from volunteers who varied in age and gender. The device uses an absorbent fiber that’s exposed to the air above the skin for 30 minutes to collect a sample of the air. The researchers analyzed the chemicals in the samples using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and detected 92 chemicals in all.
“What we found is that there are no differences associated with gender, but there were differences associated with age. So some compounds increased or decreased depending on the age of the subject,” explains Gallagher.
In the next phase of their research, they tested air above skin with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, and compared the results with normal skin. Although the chemicals in both groups were the same, the levels of some chemicals were strikingly different.
“And what we saw was that in the patients that had skin cancer, there was actually an increase in one of the compounds and a decrease in another. And this was true when we compared each healthy subject with each skin cancer patient,” Gallagher says.
Gallagher envisions developing a wand-like “electronic nose” that can be waved over the skin to detect cancer even before visible signs appear. The researchers next plan to study other forms of skin cancer.
Today, doctors diagnose skin cancer by visual examination for suspicious moles or lesions, followed by an invasive biopsy. The researchers hope that their study will lead to earlier diagnosis of skin cancer, which would give doctors a head start in treatment.
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