A Tool for Disease Detection Is Right Under Our Noses
The doctor will sniff you now? Well, not on his or her own, but with a device that functions like a superhuman nose. You’ll exhale into a breathalyzer, or a sensor will collect “scent data” from a quick pass over your urine or blood sample. Then, AI software combs through an olfactory database to find patterns in the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you secreted that match those associated with thousands of VOC disease biomarkers that have been identified and cataloged.
No further biopsy, imaging test or procedures necessary for the diagnosis. According to some scientists, this is how diseases will be detected in the coming years.
All diseases alter the organic compounds found in the body and their odors. Volatolomics is an emerging branch of chemistry that uses the smell of gases emitted by breath, urine, blood, stool, tears or sweat to diagnose disease. When someone is sick, the normal biochemical process is disrupted, and this alters the makeup of the gas, including a change in odor.
“These metabolites show a snapshot of what’s going on with the body,” says Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineer and associate vice chancellor of Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives at the University of California, Davis. This opens the door to diagnosing conditions even before symptoms are present. It’s possible to detect a sweet, fruity smell in the breath of someone with diabetes, for example.
Hippocrates may have been the first to note that people with certain diseases give off an odor but dogs provided the proof of concept. Scientists have published countless studies in which dogs or other high-performing smellers like rodents have identified people with cancer, lung disease or other conditions by smell alone. The brain region that analyzes smells is proportionally about 40 times greater in dogs than in people. The noses of rodents are even more powerful.
Take prostate cancer, which is notoriously difficult to detect accurately with standard medical testing. After sniffing a tiny urine sample, trained dogs were able to pick out prostate cancer in study subjects more than 96 percent of the time, and earlier than a physician could in some cases.
But using dogs as bio-detectors is not practical. It is labor-intensive, complicated and expensive to train dogs to bark or lie down when they smell a certain VOC, explains Bruce Kimball, a chemical ecologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Kimball has trained ferrets to scratch a box when they smell a specific VOC so he knows. The lab animal must be taught to distinguish the VOC from background odors and trained anew for each disease scent.
In the lab of chemical ecologist Bruce Kimball, ferrets were trained to scratch a box when they identified avian flu in mallard ducks.
Glen J. Golden
There are some human super-smellers among us. In 2019, Joy Milne of Scotland proved she could unerringly identify people with Parkinson’s disease from a musky scent emitted from their skin. Clinical testing showed that she could distinguish the odor of Parkinson’s on a worn t-shirt before clinical symptoms even appeared.
Hossam Haick, a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, maintains that volatolomics is the future of medicine. Misdiagnosis and late detection are huge problems in health care, he says. “A precise and early diagnosis is the starting point of all clinical activities.” Further, this science has the potential to eliminate costly invasive testing or imaging studies and improve outcomes through earlier treatment.
The Nose Knows a Lot
“Volatolomics is not a fringe theory. There is science behind it,” Davis stresses. Every VOC has its own fingerprint, and a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) uses highly sensitive instruments to separate the molecules of these VOCs to determine their structures. But GCMS can’t discern the telltale patterns of particular diseases, and other technologies to analyze biomarkers have been limited.
We have technology that can see, hear and sense touch but scientists don’t have a handle yet on how smell works. The ability goes beyond picking out a single scent in someone’s breath or blood sample. It’s the totality of the smell—not the smell of a single chemical— which defines a disease. The dog’s brain is able to infer something when they smell a VOC that eludes human analysis so far.
Odor is a complex ecosystem and analyzing a VOC is compounded by other scents in the environment, says Kimball. A person’s diet and use of tobacco or alcohol also will affect the breath. Even fluctuations in humidity and temperature can contaminate a sample.
If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells. Early versions of robot noses have already been developed.
With today’s advances in data mining, AI and machine learning, scientists are trying to create mechanical devices that can draw on algorithms based on GCMS readings and data about diseases that dogs have sniffed out. If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells.
In March, Nano Research published a comprehensive review of volatolomics in health care authored by Haick and seven colleagues. The intent was to bridge gaps in the field for scientists trying to connect the biomarkers and sensor technology needed to develop a robot nose. This paper serves as a reference manual for the field that lists which VOCs are associated with what disease and the biomarkers in skin, saliva, breath, and urine.
Weiwei Wu, one of the co-authors and a professor at Xidian University in China, explains that creating a robotic nose requires the expertise of chemists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, material scientists, and clinicians. These researchers use different terms and methodologies and most have not collaborated before with the other disciplines. “The electrical engineers know the device but they don’t know as much about the biomarkers they need to detect,” Wu offers as an example.
This review is significant, Wu continues, because it can facilitate progress in the field by providing experts in all the disciplines with the basic knowledge needed to create an effective robot nose for diagnostic use. The paper also includes a systematic summary of the research methodology of volatolomics.
Once scientists build a stronger database of VOCs, they can program a device to identify critical patterns of specified diseases on a reliable basis. On a machine learning model, the algorithms automatically get better at diagnosing with each use. Wu envisions further tweaks in the next few years to make the devices smaller and consume less power.
A Whiff of the Future
Early versions of robot noses have already been developed. Some of them use chemical sensors to pick up smells in the breath or other body emission molecules. That data is sent through an electrical signal to a computer network for interpretation and possible linkage to a disease.
This electronic nose, or e-nose, has been successful in small pilot studies at labs around the world. At Ben-Gurion University in Israel, researchers detected breast cancer with electronic gas sensors with 95% accuracy, a higher sensitivity than mammograms. Other robot noses, called p-noses, use photons instead of electrical signals.
The mechanical noses being developed tap different methodologies and analytic techniques which makes it hard to compare them. Plus, the devices are intended for varying uses. One team, for example, is working on an e-nose that can be waved over a plate to screen for the presence of a particular allergen when you’re dining out.
A robot nose could be used as a real-time diagnostic tool in clinical practice. Kimball is working on one such tool that can distinguish between a viral and bacterial infection. This would enable physicians to determine whether an antibiotic prescription is appropriate without waiting for a lab result.
Davis is refining a hand-held device that identifies COVID-19 through a simple breath test. She sees the tool being used at crowded airports, sports stadiums and concert venues where PCR or rapid antigen testing is impractical. Background air samples are collected from the space so that those signals can be removed from the human breath measurement. “[The sensor tool] has the same accuracy as the rapid antigen test kits but exhaled breath is easier to collect,” she notes.
The NaNose, also known as the SniffPhone, uses tiny sensors boosted by AI to distinguish Alzheimer's, Crohn's disease, the early stages of several cancers, and other diseases with 84 to 98 percent accuracy.
Haick named his team’s robot nose, “NaNose,” since it is based on nanotechnology; the prototype is called the SniffPhone. Using tiny sensors boosted by AI, it can distinguish 23 diseases in human subjects with 84 to 98 percent accuracy. This includes early stages of several cancers, Alzheimer’s, tuberculosis and Crohn’s disease. His team has been raising the accuracy level by combining biomarker signals from both breath and skin, for example. The goal is to achieve 99.9 percent accuracy consistently so no other diagnostic tests would be needed before treating the patient. Plus, it will be affordable, he says.
Kimball predicts we’ll be seeing these diagnostic tools in the next decade. “The physician would narrow down what [the diagnosis] might be and then get the correct tool,” he says. Others are envisioning one device that can screen for multiple diseases by programming the software, which would be updated regularly with new findings.
Larger volatolomics studies must be conducted before these e-noses are ready for clinical use, however. Experts also need to learn how to establish normal reference ranges for e-nose readings to support clinicians using the tool.
“Taking successful prototypes from the lab to industry is the challenge,” says Haick, ticking off issues like reproducibility, mass production and regulation. But volatolomics researchers are unanimous in believing the future of health care is so close they can smell it.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.