Odors from human skin cells can be used to identify melanoma, according to new research. This may lead to early noninvasive detection and diagnosis of this deadliest form of skin cancer. The researchers also demonstrated that a nanotechnology-based sensor could reliably differentiate melanoma cells from normal skin cells. Their findings suggest that noninvasive odor analysis may be a valuable technique in the detection and early diagnosis of human melanoma.

Melanoma affects the melanocytes, which are the skins cells that produce the dark pigment that gives skin its color. The disease is responsible for about 75% of skin cancer deaths. Chances for survival are directly related to how early the cancer is detected. Current detection methods most commonly rely on visual inspection of the skin, which is highly dependent on individual self-examination and clinical skill.

This study took advantage of the fact that human skin produces numerous airborne chemical molecules known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which 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 infection,” said senior author George Preti, PhD, of Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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In the study, published in the Journal of Chromatography B (2013;931:90-96), researchers used sophisticated sampling and analytical techniques to identify VOCs from melanoma cells at three stages of the disease as well as from normal melanocytes. All the cells were grown in culture.

The researchers used an absorbent device to collect chemical compounds from air in closed containers containing the various types of cells. Then, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques were used to analyze the compounds and identified different profiles of VOCs emitting from melanoma cells relative to normal cells.

Both the types and concentrations of chemicals were affected. Melanoma cells produced certain compounds not detected in VOCs from normal melanocytes and also more or less of other chemicals. Further, the different types of melanoma cells could be distinguished from one another.

Noting that translation of these results into the clinical diagnostic realm would require a reliable and portable sensor device, the researchers went on to examine VOCs from normal melanocytes and melanoma cells using a previously described nano-sensor.

Constructed of nano-sized carbon tubes coated with strands of DNA, the tiny sensors can be bioengineered to recognize a wide variety of targets, including specific odor molecules. The nano-sensor was able to distinguish differences in VOCs from normal and several different types of melanoma cells.

“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, in Philadelphia, who led the development of the olfactory sensor.