Developing machines that detect disease

Technologies may be available in 3-5 years


Smells – of skin, breath, or bodily fluids – can, in some cases, reveal the presence of disease. This fact has led researchers to try to build an odor sensor that could make a fast, reliable diagnosis, and now the field may be on the verge of a breakthrough, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

In addition to various efforts in Austria, Switzerland, and Japan, an English manufacturer – Owlstone Medical – has been making headway with an odor analysis technology. It will be part of a National Health Service trial that will test the sensor for diagnosing lung cancer. The company also is conducting a trial using urine samples to detect colon cancer; its program allows changing the software to change what disease you detect.

Meanwhile, an Israeli chemical engineer, Hossam Haick, is using similar technology, with molecular receptors that have an affinity for certain biomarkers of disease found in the breath. Artificial intelligence allows the sensors to improve with each use, and a paper published last year showed that this system could distinguish among 17 different diseases with up to 86% accuracy.

And in the United States, researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania are working on an odor sensor that detects ovarian cancer in samples of blood plasma. They chose plasma because it is less likely than breath or urine to be affected by other factors such as diet or environmental chemicals.

These technologies could be available to doctors in 3-5 years, experts say.


Murphy K. One Day, a Machine Will Smell Whether You’re Sick . New York Times. May 1, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2017.

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