Researchers have found that ovarian cancer has a unique scent signature from other gynecological cancers such as cervical cancer and vulvar cancer. While the cancer’s scent is undetectable to the human nose, advancements in technology are helping researchers more accurately detect the scent.
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer found in the ovaries. It is one of the most common cancers affecting women worldwide. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2021 alone, more than 20,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Preventive screenings have been developed to effectively detect common cancers such as lung cancer or breast cancer. However, researchers have yet to establish a universal tool to detect ovarian cancer. In tests currently in use, only about 20 percent of cases are detected in the early stages. A late diagnosis is one of the main factors contributing to low survival rates.
The discovery of ovarian cancer’s scent offers a promising future for the early detection and early diagnosis of ovarian cancer — and for women’s health worldwide.
The late Dr. George Preti, a scientist from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, dedicated his career to studying volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or odor-producing chemicals. Because of VOCs, cancer cells have a unique odor pattern, or odor signature, compared with healthy cells. These odor patterns are released during tumor development — even during the early stages — and can be found in a person’s tissue, blood, urine, stool, or breath.
Dr. Preti and his team built a library of cancer VOCs that may someday be used as a cancer odor database. These VOCs could one day serve as biomarkers for cancer screening and cancer detection.
Over the past two decades, scientists have successfully detected various cancers using VOCs and highly trained “sniffer” dogs. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell — they have more than 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose, compared to our 6 million receptors. This sense of smell allows trained dogs to detect a wide variety of odors, including ovarian cancer VOCs in blood samples, up to 100,000 times better than the human nose can.
One study found that dogs that received six months of training could differentiate early stage and low-grade ovarian cancer cells from healthy tissue with more than 97 percent accuracy. This study’s findings also indicate that ovarian cancer has the same VOCs in its early and advanced stages.
Many studies have duplicated this study’s method and model with similar results in dogs’ ability to differentiate types of cancers at various stages. The next challenge is to create an “electronic nose” — similar to a dog’s nose — that can be used as a portable screening device. Some researchers have attempted to build an electronic nose but were only able to detect ovarian cancer VOCs with 84 percent accuracy. Although this success rate is quite high, there is still more work to be done.
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