On a lab bench in Philadelphia sits a tiny box lined with nearly invisible nanotubes and gold. A clear plastic pipe runs through it, and a thicket of pins, each sprouting a red or blue wire, protrudes from its end. As air from the pipe wafts over the nanotubes, electrical signals surge out of the box along the wire threads. The whole apparatus is situated near a vial of blood, “sniffing” the air above it through the pipe.
The box, an electronic nose, is a key part of a theory being explored by George Preti, an organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and an interdisciplinary team that includes physicists and veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania. Preti is an expert on human odors, having studied them for more than 40 years. He has sniffed — both with machines and with his nose — breath, sweat and other secretions in search of answers about why we smell the way we do. This latest project seeks to answer a question others might have never thought to ask: Does ovarian cancer have a smell?
In modern cancer medicine, doctors tend to rely on advanced imaging techniques and the detection of lumps. The widely acknowledged problem with these methods, though, is that by the time doctors have reason to order a scan or feel something, it’s often too late. Ovarian cancer has usually spread to other organs by the time it’s detected. If it is caught early — which happens only 15 percent of the time, often by accident when...
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