A research team from The Wistar Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, led by scientists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, has used a nanotechnology-based sensor to differentiate between the odors from normal skin cells and those that have melanoma. The initial findings of this team’s study indicate that this type of sensor could hold high value for use in odor analysis in the early detection and diagnosis of this potentially deadly form of skin cancer.
The sensor was made from carbon nanotubes which were coated in DNA strands. Though this particular study was geared toward melanoma detection, it is believed that it could be bioengineered for the recognition of a broad spectrum of different targets.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is made up of a tumor that affects the dark pigment producing skin cells called the melanocytes. Among all forms of skin cancer, approximately 75 percent of deaths are related to melanoma. The current methods of detection are primarily reliant on visual inspection of the skin, which requires the individual to thoroughly and accurately self-examine, and for some clinical knowledge and skill to be present.
This study, however, utilized the understanding that human skin produces a number of different airborne molecules that are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Several VOCs produce odors. (This is how some dogs can detect cancer.) Monell organic chemist, George Preti, Ph.D., one of the senior authors of the study, explained that examining VOCs that are associated with various illnesses – such as genetic disorders, bacterial and viral infections, and cancers – holds considerable potential for revealing a “wealth of information”.
In order to be able to identify melanoma cell VOCs, the researchers used sophisticated techniques for sampling and analysis. They examined all three stages of the disease in addition to melanocytes that were healthy and normal. All of the cells used in this study were grown in culture.
An absorbent device was used for the collection of the chemical compounds from the air within the closed containers that contained the different cells being studied. Once the chemical compounds were collected, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques were used for identifying and outlining the various VOC profiles of the different cell types, from the normal ones to those in the three stages of melanoma.
The cells with melanoma were found to produce specific compounds that were not present in normal melanocyte cell VOCs. Moreover, the compounds from each of the melanoma stages were found to be different so that each could be distinguished from the others with the nano-sensors.
This study was published online and in print in the peer reviewed Journal of Chromatography B, and was supported by The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, as well as the National Institutes of Health.
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