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Sensor that Detects Melanoma via Odor Developed

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Jun 14, 2013 07:40 AM EDT
Volunteer lifesavers pose as a human billboard, forming the phrase "Melanoma Kills"

Volunteer lifesavers pose as a human billboard, forming the phrase "Melanoma Kills" (Photo : REUTERS/Will Burgess)

Researchers have found a way to detect cancerous cells from healthy skin cells via their odor. The study findings are expected to help doctors diagnose skin cancer early and provide treatments for patients.

The study was conducted by researchers from Monell Center and collaborating institutions who have a developed a way to detect the deadliest of skin cancers - melanoma.

Melanoma is best cured in its earliest stages, says Medline Plus. When melanoma is left untreated, the cancer cells move down from the skin and spread to other parts of the body, making treatment difficult. Melanoma is responsible for about 75 percent of deaths associated with skin cancer.

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The human skin produces many chemicals, including a class of compounds called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Many VOCs are odorous.

"There is a potential wealth of information waiting to be extracted from examination of VOCs associated with various diseases, including cancers, genetic disorders, and viral or bacterial infections," said George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at Monell and one of the study's authors, according to a news release.

For the study, researchers first separated melanoma cells at three stages of growth via their odors. All the cells were then cultured in a special growth medium. Researchers then collected chemical compounds from the cells and analyzed their chemical profiles.

The next step of the study was to make a portable sensor that could identify these melanoma cells. For this, researchers first examined VOCs from normal cells and the cancerous cells using a previously-designed nano-sensor.

The nano-sensor had carbon tubes coated with strands of DNA. These tiny sensors can be engineered to detect specific odor molecules.

"We are excited to see that the DNA-carbon nanotube vapor sensor concept has potential for use as a diagnostic. Our plan is to move forward with research into skin cancer and other diseases," said A.T. Charlie Johnson, PhD, Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania. Johnson led the development of the sensor.

The study is published in the Journal of Chromatography B.

Melanoma, according to PubMed Health, is the most deadly form of skin cancer. This year, the National Cancer Institute estimates that about 76,690 cases of melanoma will occur in the U.S.

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