February 28, 2018 / All Stories

Science Rocks! The science behind the scent of some diseases

With the help of super smellers, scientists are studying certain chemicals that may change a patient’s scent.

Science Rocks features AbbVie scientists who share interesting research and why it matters. In this month's feature, Lisa Hazelwood, Ph.D., principal research scientist, fibrotic diseases, AbbVie, shares two articles about super smellers. The first is about a woman who many say has the ability to detect Parkinson’s disease in patients based on their scent. The second is about a group of dogs who may be able to sniff out cancer.

What if it was possible to detect and start treating diseases years before they’re typically diagnosed? And what if the disease could be detected with minimal cost and zero discomfort to patients? Some researchers say it’s possible by identifying and detecting unusual chemicals emitted by patients called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These VOCs may show up years before more traditional diagnostic tests and could help reliably identify certain diseases.

I recently read an update on a story that has fascinated me for years. A woman in Scotland noticed an unusual odor on her husband years prior to his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, but it was only after joining a support group for families with Parkinson’s that she realized the same odor was common to other patients. When she mentioned this to scientists, they put her abilities to the test in a controlled laboratory environment. What they found shocked them - she was able to correctly identify all of the Parkinson’s patients in a controlled setting by smelling their T-shirts, including one patient who had not yet been diagnosed. Since then, she has been working closely with a research team at the University of Edinburgh to identify the VOCs responsible for the odor.

Identifying these VOCs is the first critical step to accurately measuring them and using the information to help diagnose patients. Currently no specific test exists to diagnose Parkinson's disease. Neurologists diagnose patients based on their medical history, a review of symptoms and a neurological and physical examination.

This concept isn’t entirely novel, dogs have been reported to detect cancer in their owners for years, with some dogs even being trained to specifically sniff out cancer in laboratory samples. More recently, a large multi-center clinical trial is investigating the diagnostic potential of a “breathalyzer” for lung cancer. Such breathalyzer devices for VOCs could enable not only earlier detection, but also easier and more affordable access to diagnostic testing.

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Jaquelin Finley
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Tags: Perspectives