Can You Detect Skin Cancer by Smell?
Many cancers can be detected by smell or olfactory sensitivity in
- Some humans,
- Trained medical sniffer/detection dogs, and
- A small medical device called the "electronic nose."
By 2017, researchers have found 17 different medical conditions that can be found through smell, especially by the electronic device.1
Human Bodies and Associated Odors
Detecting cancers of the human body by the odors they emit makes sense. This is because our bodies give off different odors based on many variables and sickness is just one of them.
For example, certain foods especially change the odor of human breath, sweat, urine, and defecation. Medications can also change those odors. In the early 21st century, we find that cancers change this odors as well. This is because all cells in the body ingest nutrients and give off wastes. Cancerous cells give off wastes as well, but of a different odor based on chemical composition, than do healthy cells.1,2,3,5,6
My prediction is that an electronic olfactory diagnosis instrument can become the go-to method for early detection of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers. The instrument could possibly be adjusted to become a smartphone app like "The Epic Health App" (epichealth.io/) to monitor blood glucose level, body temperature, blood pressure, respiration rate, blood oxygen saturation, and insulin resistance by placing a finger on the screen of an android phone.
The Field of Olfactory Diagnosis Grows
I have witnessed a few physicians somehow determine the possibility of cancer by using their sense of smell.
These few individuals seem sensitive to the odors that cell wastes and chemicals in and around areas of skin cancer exude. Hard evidence of such odors and the ability to detect them was released in a paper issued on August 21, 2008, in ScienceDaily.
The Monell Chemical Senses Center5 was the site of this research work. Researchers have since applied the results of the use of human senses to such diverse detection of the conditions of areas cancers, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, pediatric conditions, job-related safety, pollution, and even homeland security issues.
In 1968, the company formed to study taste, smell and "chemo-sensory irritation."5 The last phenomenon is likely what was occurring with physicians detect cancer through an odor. These doctors did not all seem to "smell" cancer, but rather, seemed to experience an alarm of some sort in their brains in response to chemical irritants.
Odors and Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal Cell Carcinoma or BSC is the most commonly occurring skin cancer from among six types of skin cancer known in the 21st century. The Mayo Clinic asserts that BSC is the most easily treatable of the skin cancers and usually appears as one of two phenomena:
- A bump or bumps of a pearly or waxy nature on the neck, ears, or face, or
- One or more lesions that look like a scar and appear flat and either flesh-colored or brown and appear on the chest or back.
Anything that looks like either of these should be seen by a doctor immediately.
In related research, the American Chemical Society worked with US National Institutes of Health funding and found that chemicals (volatile organic compounds or VOCs) are emitted by BSC into the area above the cancerous skin area.
Volatile in this scenario does not mean explosive. "Volatile" means readily evaporating at room temperature. The chemicals are exuded in different proportions by BSC and by non-cancerous skin and this difference is the marker for BSC.
Some physicians can detect the difference between the odors mentioned above by smell or chemo-sensory irritant.
Back in the 1990s, I first thought that a medical device of some sort would be helpful in this task - like the Breathalyzer for detecting alcohol fumes. In 2016, it was reported that a scientist in Israel, Hossam Haick1,3, began working on just such a device in 2006 and named it the “electronic nose.” I expect it to show up soon as a smartphone app.
Dr. Haick was one of nearly 60 physicians who studied 1,400 patients, finding that a number of cancers can be detected by smell; or odor-related chemicals, in the case of his device.
Cancers Detected via Olfactory Methods
- Colorectal: The feces smear and the colonoscopy methods of cancer detection may become obsolete.
- Head and Neck: Dr. Haick's detection device would come in very useful in dental practices, where head and neck examinations are standard.
- Gastric: Stomach and Pancreas: The medical detection device can also detect diabetes.
- Ovarian: Early detection is vital in these cases.
Further Comments on the Odors of Skin Cancer
The accumulating VOC profiles for cancerous skin and other body areas may need to be plotted against baseline readings for a number of factors, perhaps in addition to the already-used gender, age, and body site.
We may find that they must also include these, among others:
- Blood types
- Presence of chronic conditions such as diabetes
- Racial subdivisions and ethnicity
- Usual diet
Gallagher, et.al.1 completed a study to look at forearm and back areas of healthy males and females ages 19 - 79 with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. They found about 100 chemical compounds exuded by skin.
Researchers determined a "normal" skin profile and a different normal profile for each of
- Forearm skin and
- Back skin.
In other words, healthy forearm of skin puts out different chemicals in different quantities than does healthy back skin.
Advancing age resulted in only an increase of the amount of certain chemicals emitted, and not the type of chemicals. Older patients, therefore, may possibly be more easily diagnosed by odors for cancers.
Skin Cancer, Moles, and Warts
Research released in July of 2008 by the University of Rochester7 showed that cancerous moles exude a protein that non-cancerous moles do not emit. I think that that this protein could be connected with emissions of VOCs—Does this protein, in fact, exude an odor or odor-like chemical? It may benefit the programs of both the "smell" studies and "protein" studies to join forces and find out.
The protein, IMP-3 is present in both harmless and cancerous moles, but is present in significantly greater quantities in cancerous moles. Warts may or may not exhibit similar properties.
Training Schools for Cancer-Sniffing Dogs
Trained dogs have been found to detect a number of cancers through their specialized canine olfactory system.6 Lung cancer seems to be their toughest challenge, suggesting that the electronic nose would be better used for finding lung cancers in the early stages. Medical detection dogs are trained at the following facilities"
In Situ Foundation; Chico, California. This foundation trains dogs to sniff out cancer in at least 11 US States, Canada, South America, and Europe. https://dogsdetectcancer.org/bio-dog-certified-trainers/
Medical Detection Dogs: 3 Millfield Greenway Business Park, Winslow Road, Great Horwood, Milton Keynes MK17 0NP, United Kingdom
Penn Vet Working Dog Center. 3401 Grays Ferry Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19146, USA
- Gallagher, M., PhD; reporting at the 235th Meeting of the American Chemical Society, December 2016. Diagnosis and Classification of 17 Diseases from 1404 Subjects via Pattern Analysis of Exhaled Molecules. Nakhleh, M.K., et.al. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acsnano.6b04930 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
- Handwerk, B. Your Breath Does More Than Repulse—It Can Also Tell Doctors Whether You Have Cancer. The Smithsonian Magazine. December 21, 2016.
www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-bad-breath-doesnt-just-repulseit-can-also-reveal-disease-180961527 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
- June, L. Scientists Can Now Detect 17 Different Diseases by Smell. The Outline. December 28, 2016. theoutline.com/post/798/scientists-can-now-detect-17-diseases-by-smell Retrieved November 9, 2017.
- Mayo Clinic. Basal Cell Carcinoma/Diagnosis and Treatment. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/basal-cell-carcinoma/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20354193 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
- Monell Chemical Senses Center (August 21, 2008). Scent Of Skin Cancer Discovered. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/08/080820162842.htm Retrieved September 6, 2008.
- Stahl, S. Researchers: Dogs Able To Detect Cancers Through Smell. October 4, 2017. philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/10/04/dogs-cancers-smell/ Retrieved November 9, 2017.
- University of Rochester Medical Center (July 20, 2008). Protein Found To Identify Malignant Melanoma. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/07/080717110231.htm Retrieved September 6, 2008.
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS