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May 7, 2019,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Medical diagnostics: electronic connected noses inspired by dogs’ hypersensitive sense of smell

Inspired by the ability of dogs to sniff out certain illnesses in their initial stages, a number of teams of researchers are currently working on perfecting bioelectronic medical noses. It is hoped that devices of this kind, some of which are already capable of detecting tuberculosis and several types of cancer, will provide diagnoses that are prompt, reliable and cost-effective. 

Photo credits: Na-Nose/YouTube screenshot/Technion

30 years after it was realised that dogs are capable of distinguishing between a melanoma and a simple beauty spot purely by its odour, medical interest in the canine sense of smell has become field of its own. Two major French projects, entitled Acadia and KDOG, are using specially trained dogs to detect illnesses, according to an article on French website Slate. This approach has inspired researchers to look to create artificial noses – bioelectronic devices which will hopefully be able to diagnose various pathologies in a prompt, efficient and low-cost way. 

Detecting diabetes, cancer and tuberculosis

The Acadia project is designed to teach dogs to detect levels of acetone, which is an indicator of type 1 diabetes, on the breath of certain patients. The KDOG programme meanwhile uses Belgian Shepherd dogs to provide early diagnoses of breast cancer, simply by scenting the patient’s sweat. A preliminary study carried out on 130 women provided results that were more effective than a conventional mammogram.

Other studies have been published in recent years demonstrating the abilities of dogs to detect lung cancer based on patients’ breath and even Gambian rats capable of identifying the tuberculosis bacillus once it has been expectorated. The latter programme, called APOPO, is a source of hope for many developing countries where this illnesses still causes significant deaths among the population.

Designing portable connected noses

These studies are definitely encouraging, but this type of approach has its limits. Training the animals is time-consuming, and their effectiveness can be adversely affected by various factors (including boredom, fatigue and hunger). It is also by no means easy for their presence to be accepted in healthcare centres, as Édith Pajot-Augy, a specialist in olfactory neurobiology at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, points out.

This is why researchers are looking to develop electronic noses. Portable connected objects of this kind would be more reliable and functional, and in particular more compatible with the aims of telemedicine. "E-noses are made up of miniaturised networks of full-spectrum chemical sensors, with a wide variety of sensitive surfaces [...] some of whose properties are modified in the presence of volatile organic components," Professor Pajot-Augy explains. "They are coupled with a transducer which, once the signal has been processed, generates a signature, or imprint, that is characteristic of the olfactory environment."

Reliable, low-cost diagnostics

The first e-noses are already capable of detecting a certain number of pathologies. An electronic nose developed by a company called Aeonose uses portable metallic oxides that can be used in remote areas without collection devices and which can identify the presence of tuberculosis without biological samples being taken. The Na-Nose meanwhile, which is made up of a network of 14 nano-sensors, and the SniffPhone (which can be used in conjunction with a smartphone), can recognise a person suffering from one of the four most widespread forms of cancer (lung, breast, colon and prostate) from their breath. 

Neurodegenerative illnesses including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease could also benefit from diagnoses that are prompt, early and cost-effective. The Cyranose 320 has sensors that are capable of recognising the characteristic composition of the air that is exhaled by patients suffering from the above-mentioned diseases. In the near future, cystic fibrosis, bacterial sinus infections, chronic rhinosinusitis and fungal infections could also be detected using connected noses.

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