How scientists are 'sniffing out' melanoma

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Monnell scientists have found a way to 'sniff out' melanoma

Researchers have found a way to identify deadly melanoma by it's scent. Monnell University scientists are working on a tool that can identify melanoma skin cancer non-invasively and early.

Melanoma is responsible for 75 percent of deaths from skin cancer. According to statistics, the deadly cancer is on the rise and continues to affect more young people.

Self-inspection of the skin or a physician exam is the current method for diagnosing melanoma that develops when skin cells known as melanocytes. Melanin is the substance produced by the cells that protects us from the harmful effects of sunlight.

Abnormal melanocyte production leads to an overgrowth of the cells that can spread below the skin to the organs.

One of the hurdles to surviving melanoma is that the skin cancer is often detected too late. If it is diagnosed early, the skin cancer can usually be removed successfully.


According to the Monnell scientists, human skin produces a number of airborne chemical molecules known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Past studies have shown cancer cells produce a distinct odor. In tests, specially trained Labrador retrievers were able to accurately diagnosis colon cancer from breath and stool samples.

For their study, published in the Journal of Chromatography B, researchers compared the scent of melanoma in 3 different changes, comparing the smell to normal skin cells.

The researchers collected chemical compounds from the air of different types of cells grown in lab cultures; enclosed in containers, using an absorbent device.

After identifying different compounds that can distinguish cancer cells from normal cells, they used a carbon tube nano-sensor lined with DNA strands. The sensor was able to distinguish different volatile compounds in 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, who led the development of the olfactory sensor in a press release.

The researchers say ‘sniffing out’ the skin cancer with a nanotechnology-based sensor is a rapid and non-invasive way to detect melanoma early. The odor of melanoma can also help diagnose various stages of the disease.