Electronic Olfaction System Under Study as Screening Tool for Pancreatic and Ovarian Cancers

June 5, 2021 9:00 am

The following article is provided by The Clearity Foundation to support women with ovarian cancer and their families. Learn more about The Clearity Foundation and the services we provide directly to women as they make treatment decisions and navigate emotional impacts of their diagnosis.

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An odor-based test that detects vapors emanating from blood samples was able to distinguish between benign and pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells with up to 95% accuracy, according to a new study presented by Johnson et al during the 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting (Abstract 5544). The findings suggest that the tool—which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to decipher the mixture of volatile organic compounds emitting off cells in blood plasma samples—could serve as a noninvasive approach to screen for harder-to-detect cancers.

“It’s an early study, but the results are very promising,” said presenting author A.T. Charlie Johnson, PhD, the Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. “The data show we can identify these tumors at both advanced 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.”

Electronic Olfaction System

The electronic olfaction—or “e-nose”—system is equipped with nanosensors calibrated to detect the composition of volatile organic compounds, which all cells emanate. Previous studies from the researchers demonstrated that volatile organic compounds released from tissue and plasma from patients with ovarian cancer are distinct from those released from samples of patients with benign tumors.

The 93 study patients included 20 patients with ovarian cancer, 20 with benign ovarian tumors, and 20 age-matched controls with no cancer, as well as 13 patients with pancreatic cancer, 10 with benign pancreatic disease, and 10 controls. The vapor sensors discriminated the volatile organic compounds from ovarian cancer with 95% accuracy and those from pancreatic cancer with 90% accuracy. The tool also correctly identified all patients—a total of eight—with early-stage cancers.

The technology’s pattern recognition approach is similar to the way people’s own sense of smell works, where a distinct mixture of compounds tells the brain what it is smelling. The tool was trained and tested to identify the volatile organic compound patterns more associated with cancer cells and those associated with cells from healthy blood samples in up to 20 minutes.

The study authors concluded: “Nano-enabled DNA–coated vapor sensors were able to distinguish the volatile organic compound pattern between cancer, benign, and control samples in both ovarian and pancreatic cancers. We provide strong evidence that ovarian and pancreatic cancers alter the volatile organic compound pattern emanating from plasma. Our results provide optimism that a diagnostic approach based on vapor detection of ovarian and pancreatic cancers is achievable.”

This article was published by ASCO.

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