Saturday, June 23, 2018
Perspective

This machine will smell whether you're sick

Blindfolded, would you know the smell of your mom, a lover or a co-worker? Not the smells of their colognes or perfumes, not of the laundry detergents they use — the smells of them? Each of us has a unique "odorprint" made up of thousands of organic compounds. These molecules offer a whiff of who we are, revealing age, genetics, lifestyle, hometown — even metabolic processes that underlie our health. Yes, the smell of someone's skin, breath and bodily fluids can be suggestive of illness. The breath of diabetics sometimes smells of rotten apples, experts report; the skin of typhoid patients, like baking bread. Now, researchers are trying to build an inexpensive odor sensor for quick, reliable and noninvasive diagnoses. The field finally seems on the cusp of succeeding.

Britain's National Health Service is paying for a 3,000-subject clinical trial to test an odor analysis sensor's ability to diagnose lung cancer. The company that makes the unit says clinicians can change the software to sniff out other diseases.

A similar diagnostic technology is being developed in Israel. Those researchers published a paper in ACS Nano in December showing that their artificially intelligent nano-array could distinguish among 17 diseases with up to 86 percent accuracy.

In addition to these groups, teams in the United States, Austria, Switzerland and Japan also are developing odor sensors to diagnose disease.

"That you're seeing so much activity both in commercial and academic settings shows that we're getting a lot closer," said Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineer and professor at the University of California at Davis, who also is helping to develop an odor sensor to diagnose disease. "My estimate is it's a three- to five-year time frame" before such tools are available to clinicians.

Kate Murphy, New York Times

Empirical evidence: Cats do love people

Researchers at Oregon State University offered 38 cats a choice between food, a toy, an interesting smell (catnip, a gerbil) and attention from a human. Thirty-seven percent preferred food to anything else. Eleven percent liked toys, and one cat was preoccupied with the smells of catnip and gerbils. But 19 of them — half! — preferred the company of humans above all, choosing them over other entertainment possibilities. So cats are not haughty and aloof. They're affable, affectionate and selfless. Yeah, right.

Nicholas Bakalar, New York Times

Some surprising dog breeds

have ancient American heritage

Pity the Chinese crested dog, whose scrawny, wrinkly appearance has drawn guffaws for, oh, hundreds of years. But revenge is sweet: Scientists now report that the breed is among just a handful descending from the first dogs to populate the Americas.

Dogs were domesticated 15,000 or more years ago, scientists now think, and accompanied the first people who migrated from Asia to America more than 10,000 years ago. But those dogs seem to have disappeared when Europeans brought over their own dogs.

Recently geneticists found that several breeds — including the Chinese crested — share large chunks of DNA not found in other breeds. This DNA most likely comes from ancient American dogs, they said. So the Chinese crested dog, despite its name, seems not to have come from Asia at all.

James Gorman, New York Times

 
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