Odor-based test screens for hard-to-detect cancers

An odor-based test developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school in Philadelphia identified cancer cells with up to 95 percent accuracy, according to findings set to be presented June 4 at the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. 

The test, which uses an electronic olfaction, or "e-nose" system, works by deciphering the mixture of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, among blood plasma samples. The system employs nanosensors trained to detect the composition of VOCs, as previous research has shown that VOCs coming from samples of patients with certain cancers, such as ovarian, differ from those emanating from samples of patients with benign tumors. 

The study involved 93 patients, including those with ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and benign tumors. 

The odor-based test detected VOCs from ovarian cancer with 95 percent accuracy and VOCs from pancreatic cancer with 90 percent accuracy. Additionally, the tool accurately identified all eight patients with early-stage cancers. 

"It's an early study but the results are very promising," said A.T. Charlie Johnson, PhD, lead study author, and physics and astronomy professor at the university. "The data shows we can identify these tumors at both the advanced stage and the earliest stages, which is exciting. If developed appropriately for the clinical setting, this could potentially be a test that's done on a standard blood draw that may be part of your annual physical." 

The research team is now working with VOC Health, a company focused on early disease detection, to commercialize the test. Several of the study's authors are co-founders and equity holders in the company, the research disclosed.

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