In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

January 10, 2017

Researchers Hope the (Electronic) Nose Knows When It Comes to Cancer

By In the Loop

A research team led by gastroenterology resident Daniel Chan, M.D., is out to prove that you don't need a sixth sense to sniff out cancer, but could perhaps make better use of one of the big five.

A research team led by Mayo Clinic gastroenterology resident Daniel Chan, M.D., is out to prove that you don't need a sixth sense to sniff out cancer, but maybe just make better use of one of the big five. The team is hoping the sense of smell can be an effective tool to screen patients for a variety of cancers, including Barrett's esophagus, a common precursor to esophageal cancer. "It's fascinating that we've more or less neglected one of the five senses as a diagnostic tool," Dr. Chan tells Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News. "When was the last time a doctor smelled anybody?"

Smelling an opportunity, we reached out to Dr. Chan to learn more, and he was more than happy to give us a fascinating history lesson. "Going back to the age of Hippocrates and our early forefathers of medicine in ancient Greece, it's well documented that they used their five senses, including smell, significantly," he tells us. "Sense of smell has been widely taught throughout the ages as a way to diagnose certain conditions."

As Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News reports, Dr. Chan and his research team employed an "electronic nose" device for their study. The device, developed by Dutch technology firm The eNose Company, was used to test the breath and breathing patterns of 85 volunteers with a history of Barrett's esophagus against those with no signs or symptoms of the condition. "Through our study, we were able to identify the 'smell print,' if you will, of people with Barrett's esophagus," he tells us.

While the test is admittedly still "far from clinical use," Dr. Chan tells us early results could eventually lead to a screening test for Barrett's esophagus (and ultimately esophageal cancer) that's more accessible, more cost-effective, and less invasive than what's currently available." Barrett's esophagus is highly treatable when properly diagnosed," he says. "But one of the main problems is that around 90 percent, or nine out of every 10 patients, are never diagnosed before it leads to esophageal cancer. So they miss that treatment window."

Dr. Chan and team are hoping the answer to keeping that treatment window open has been under their noses all along. He says he hopes "that by using smell, we can perhaps … better diagnose diseases in a more accessible and affordable way for patients." We sense he's on to something.

Learn more about Dr. Chan's research, including a video tutorial of how electronic nose technology works, here. Then share your comments below before you use the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.

Tags: Barrett's esophagus, Dr. Daniel Chan, Esophageal cancer, Gastroenterology, Research News

I am a patient at Mayo Clinic Rochester. I was successfully treated for stage 3B non small cell adenocarcinoma. I am Ned now for7 months. My smell sense changed a year before I was diagnosed in March 2016 It smelled like something burning. I asked my. PCP if that was a sign of cancer. He said no, I think he was wrong. Thank God for Mayo. Jamie Fisher from Texas


Ps. Dr Shanda. Blackmon is the reason we came to Mayo. My husband and I followed her from Texas

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