Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cutting Edge of Disease Detection: Odor, Saliva

Expensive, time-consuming MRIs. Painful blood tests. Frightening, intrusive, sometimes risky biopsies. Could science someday render such tools of disease diagnosis obsolete? I hope so. Imagine the savings in cost, pain and risk. Imagine then how more people would be more willing to confront serious health problems. So where do we stand on new, easier means of diagnosing disease? A couple stories caught my eye recently.

At Scientific American,
a new piece looks at how researchers are working on an “electronic nose” to sniff out disease. When you’re sick, malicious bacteria can give off a unique odor. According to one expert, “you can walk into a patient's room and know immediately in some cases that the patient has such and such bacteria just because of the odor." Furthermore, certain diseases can change a body’s chemistry in such a way “that alter the smell of a patient's body.” For example, doctors have known for a while that “diabetes could make a patient's breath smell sweet.”

If the human nose, as amazing and imperfect as it is, can pick up some diseases, imagine what a fine-tuned odor-analyzing machine could do? For one, it could tell whether or not a patient has cancer. “When you have cancer, metabolism changes and the volatile organic compounds are altered,” said one expert. By analyzing a patient’s breath, “the changes are detectable by an electronic nose."

Speaking of cancer,
I heard on Science Friday that scientists are working on a saliva test for cancer. “The proposed test would key in on hypermethylated genes, chemically modified pieces of DNA that can be found in the presence of some cancers of the head and neck.”


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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.