The Smell of Progress: Electronic noses could revolutionize medicine and security

By Rhonda DeYoung

Do you enjoy the smell of warm cookies fresh out of the oven? The wet rain on freshly cut grass or the way your dog smells after you bathe him? Of course noses are more than just early cookie detection systems, they also provide valuable information about the environment. The smell of fire, chemicals, or bad food provides a strong warning against dangers our other senses may fail to detect. This aspect of smell has captivated scientists for years, and now they are creating super-sensitive “noses” to detect a host of dangerous substances.

One group of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have developed an Electronic Nose Device called Cyranose 320. The “E-nose” has proven effective for diagnosing pneumonia and sinusitis. About the size of your TV remote control, it is already used in the food industry and could be on its way to your local doctor’s office. The team says the device is easier, faster and less expensive to use than current methods. The E-nose works by identifying the unique mixtures of gases which all bacteria exhale, once the sensor gets a positive match, a diagnoses can be made.

Cyranose 320

In order to help fight crime, researchers at The EADS Corporate Research Centre in Munich, Germany have developed an electronic sniffer. Roughly the size of a three-ring notebook, the makers claim it is 30 times more sensitive than a dog’s nose. The impressive robo-nose can detect infinitesimally small quantities of drugs and explosives.

Cancer sniffing dogs have made the news recently, and researchers are hoping to mimic the canine schnoz’s ability at detecting cancer at very early stages.The NA-Nose concept has scientifically shown in laboratory studies it has the capability to sniff cancer on the breath of someone suffering from it. Designed as a diagnostic and screening tool, this technology could come to market soon. So far, it is limited to detecting head, neck or lung cancers.


Perhaps the most advanced sensor on the list, the NA-Nose employes 5 gold nano-particle sensors smaller than a human hair. When cancer contacts the sensor, a minute electrical signal is sent alerting the device to the potential presence of cancer. Professor Hossam Haick and his team designed the small device with high hopes cancer testing without invasive biopsies and blood tests.

These developments are a sure sign that artificial sniffers will someday be a standard tool for medical and security fields. For now, their biggest competitor is man’s best friend. The humble hound boasts an incredibly sensitive nose, and while training and upkeep can be expensive, it will take time before artificial noses can match them for price and performance.

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