NASA's electronic nose can sniff out cancer, space stench

JPL space sniffer

In yet another example of cool stuff developed for space that could make life on earth better, researchers today said an electronic nose developed to sniff the air on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station can in fact detect brain cancer cells. 

Neurosurgeons from the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles, along with scientists from the Brain Mapping Foundation in West Hollywood and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, used the agency's electronic nose to investigate the role of cellular odors in cellular trafficking, brain cancer metastasis, stem cell migration, and the potential of the device to be used for intraoperative imaging.

A pilot study found that the electronic space nose can detect odor differences between normal and cancerous brain cells.  In a series of experiments, the Brain Mapping Foundation used NASA's electronic nose to sniff brain cancer cells and cells in other organs. The results of the pilot study open up more sophisticated biochemical analysis and experimentation for neurosurgeons to fight brain cancer, the group stated.

Babak Kateb, Chairman and Scientific Director of the Brain Mapping Foundation, said in a release: "This pilot study lays the groundwork for future research that may help us to better understand cellular trafficking, contribute to designing better approaches for the detection and differentiation of brain cancer, and understand the pathophysiology of intracranial gliomas."

Kateb has experimented with the NASA sniffer in the past to diagnose lung cancer.

According to NASA the electronic nose is an array of chemical sensors, controlled and analyzed electronically, which can mimic the function of the human nose by recognizing patterns of response to vapors. The sensors are not specific to any one vapor; it is in the use of an array of sensors, each with a different sensing medium, that gases and gas mixtures can be identified by the pattern of response of the array.

NASA said most existing chemical sensors are designed to detect specific molecules. Array-based sensing uses non-specific sensors in which the pattern and magnitude of response are used to identify and quantify the presence of contaminants. Array-based sensors are based on a biological model of "sniffing", detecting changes in odor, and can be trained to detect new patterns.

With an electronic nose, a baseline of clean air is established, and deviations from that baseline are recorded as changes in resistance of the sensors.Ccontaminants can be identified and quantified by using a software analysis program such as pattern recognition and/or neural network, NASA said.

The nose can even be trained to distinguish between Pepsi and Coke, NASA said.

The results of the pilot study are set to be published in an IBMISPS-NeuroImage special issue in July, and presented at the 6th Annual World Congress for Brain Mapping & Image Guided Therapy at Harvard Medical School, August 26-29, 2009.

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