Melanoma now detectable by skin odor

Responsible for more than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths, melanoma is a cancer of the skin, which affects the melanocytes (pigment carrying cells of the body). A new study now suggests that this dangerous cancer may be easily detectable - by odors from skin cells.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from the Monell Center revealed two new ways to help early detection of skin cancer- by odors emitted by human skin, and by using a nanotechnology-based sensor that could differentiate between normal skin cells and melanoma skin cells.

Early methods of detection of this deadly form of skin cancer relied on physical examination only; but this new study is about to change it all.

The researchers took into consideration the fact that human skin produces a number of airborne chemical molecules, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which emit odor too, and put it to use as an early melanoma detection tool.

"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 infections," senior author George Preti, PhD and an organic chemist at Monell, noted.

For this study, the researchers made use of sophisticated analytical and sampling techniques that helped detect VOCs emitted from melanoma skin cells at different levels of progression of the disease. They also sampled VOCs emitted from normal skin cells by using an absorbent device. Analysis of these VOCs was done using mass spectrometry and gas chromatography techniques.

To translate the results obtained from the VOC analysis into a diagnostic analysis, a reliable and portable sensor would be required, to which, the researchers used a nano-sensor.

The nano-sensor was made up of two nano-sized tubes that were coated with strands of DNA. The use of DNA as a sensor could be clarified by the fact that DNA tend to act as a wonderful sensor, which makes identification of the target easy. The results so obtained revealed a stunning fact- human skin cells emit odor different from that of melanoma skin cells; a new early diagnostic tool which may help cut down death rates due to melanoma considerably.

"This study demonstrates the usefulness of examining VOCs from diseases for rapid and noninvasive diagnostic purposes," Preti said. "The methodology should also allow us to differentiate stages of the disease process."

The study is now published in the Journal of Chromatography B. 

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