Smelling Skin Cancer

  by  |  August 20th, 2008  |  Published in All, Health

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Research announced today confirms that skin with cancer gives off a different odor than normal skin. This ScienCentral News video reports on the first odor profile for skin cancer and how it could lead to new cancer sniffing technology.

[If you cannot see the Revver video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: Michelle Gallagher, Monell Chemical Senses Center
Produced by Sunita Reed — Edited by Sunita Reed and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

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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  1. The Dogs were Right all along « I Think ^(Link) Therefore I Err says:

    August 21st, 2008 at 8:39 am (#)

    [...] Now they have a machine that basically do something similar. [...]

  2. traffic says:

    August 21st, 2008 at 2:29 pm (#)

    This article was pretty wild.Very interesting.I'm gonna bookmark this page and show my boss.We we're just speaking of something similar…..

  3. mike pulcinella says:

    August 22nd, 2008 at 11:48 am (#)

    I appreciate the work Ms. Gallagher is doing yet I begin to wonder…can it ever be too early to detect the possibility of cancer?

    I remember reading somewhere that our bodies are constantly producing errant cells that could become cancer, but that most of the time our immune system shuts them down before they do any harm. What if Michelle Gallagher’s new process detects cells that NEVER would have become cancerous and we end up performing needless procedures and possibly scarring otherwise heathly people?

    Is it possible to take preventative medicine too far?

  4. Sunita_Reed says:

    August 22nd, 2008 at 12:47 pm (#)

    Mike, I asked the researchers to answer you questions. Here is Dr. Preti's response:

    “Thanks for the comments and don't worry-here is why.
    First: we are nowhere near the level of sensitivity of seeing cancer at the level of one or
    several errant cells.
    Second: in a time very far from now (and perhaps in a different Universe) phyicians will
    perform surgery just on the basis of a sensor response. In our time and space, visual
    inspection of the site and biopsies will be with us for a looooong time.
    Third: we can all do preventive medicine without seeing Dr. Gallagher, me or any of our
    physician colleagues, as there are ample places for advice on keeping skin healthy; if you are
    genetically prone to skin disease then frequent physical exams are already recommended.”

  5. Mike Pulcinella says:

    August 23rd, 2008 at 11:11 pm (#)

    Thanks, Ms. Reed, for forwarding my comments and thanks Dr. Preti, for your response. Yes, you have put my mind at ease. What you say makes a lot of sense to me. I hope I didn't insult Ms. Gallagher or her research which is fascinating and seems very promising.

  6. Sunita_Reed says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 4:57 pm (#)

    Mike, that's why we're here–to get people to think about science. Keep the questions and comments coming!

  7. Highlighting Cancer | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    October 14th, 2008 at 2:59 pm (#)

    [...] Smelling Skin Cancer 8/20/08 [...]

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    Is there any corrective measures that can be done to help reconstruct pre cancerous skin cells into healthy tissue? I heard green tea applied to the skin can be beneficial.

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