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Sniffing out cancer

By , 21 June 2013

Melanoma (type of skin cancer) on skin.

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
Image: Skin Cancer Foundation

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia and around the world. Researchers in the USA are developing a new method using the unique ‘smell’ of skin cancer cells to detect them earlier.

Cancer can affect all parts of the body. It’s not just one disease – there are about 200 types of cancer. These diseases are caused by cells growing and spreading out of control.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects melanocytes, cells that produce melanin pigment to give skin its colour. Although it’s rarer than other types of skin cancer, it’s responsible for the most skin cancer deaths.

As with many other types of cancer, detecting melanoma early increases the chances of survival. Current detection methods rely on a doctor examining the skin, then taking a sample. This method relies heavily on the skill and experience of the doctor to make a correct diagnosis.

Human skin gives off a range of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Different combinations of VOCs lead to different smells. A team from the USA discovered that melanoma cells emit a different combination of VOCs to healthy skin cells.

The team developed sensors made of tiny carbon nanotubes coated with DNA. The sensors can be tuned to detect specific chemicals. Their device was able to tell the difference between VOCs emitted by melanoma cells, and those emitted by healthy skin cells.

The cells used in this experiment were grown in a lab. The next step is to analyse VOCs from patients diagnosed with melanoma. With more work, this method could one day help doctors detect melanomas earlier and more accurately.

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