The Scientist: Scents and Sense-Abilities: Using Bug Brainpower to Smell Cancer

Recently, Debajit Saha, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan State University, and his team tapped into the odor-sensing circuitry of the locust brain to detect the scent signatures of human oral cancers. Saha previously used locusts for sniffing out bombs,4 making the transition to cancer detection an interesting one. “Cancer changes [cellular] metabolism and those changes are reflected in exhaled breath,” Saha said. Known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these unique chemical signatures are promising biomarkers of disease—if scientists can detect them. Other researchers are engineering artificial sensors—also known as electronic noses—to identify cancer, but their sensitivity, specificity, and speed are still limited compared to creatures that inhabit a sensory landscape of smell. Saha’s team is reverting to biology to harness nature’s most powerful biosensors. “Rather than back engineering a biological brain, we are forward engineering their computation,” Saha said.

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