Hi-tech odor sensor aims to sniff out disease, explosives and even mood

But now scientists and entrepreneurs are restarting their efforts to recreate the sense of smell in compact devices that detect and analyze odors, the way cameras now recognize our faces and microphone our words. Huh. In the pursuit of these high-tech devices – which can use smell to detect disease like cancer or COVID-19, detect hidden explosives or sense our moods and behavior – some companies are using synthetic Taking advantage of advances in biology and genetic engineering. Others are using advances in artificial intelligence.

“It’s a growing field as a whole. We’re recognizing that there’s a whole world of molecules out there that we’re blind to,” says Andreas Mershin, an odor-sensor researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He calls the area an “undiscovered gold mine”.

The quest to build better olfactory sensors is a challenging one because odor is made up of many different chemicals and because animals’ olfactory receptors—special cells in the nose that recognize odor molecules—are remarkably diverse. For example, humans have three types of receptors for color vision, but hundreds of different olfactory receptors.

Among the most futuristic devices are those that involve engineered living cells to react to specific odorant components. Konicu Inc., a startup in San Rafael, Calif., is now using bioengineered nerve cells as the basis for a sensor capable of recognizing the subtle smell of explosives. Cells contain proteins designed to detect so-called volatile organic compounds, carbon-containing substances that seep into the air from many sources, including food, paint, beverages, bodies and unexploded bombs.

Osh Agabi, the firm’s founder and chief executive officer, says, “We design scent cyborgs. He says the firm is working with Airbus America to develop a sensor package and explosive-containing material for use at airports. The goal is not to replace the bomb, but to augment them, sniffing dogs and other safety measures are now in use, according to Bruce Cool, head of aviation-safety programs at Airbus Americas.

According to Dr. Agabi, in recent tests at San Francisco International Airport, a prototype of Konikoo’s bomb-sniffing device identified fragments of planted baggage, which contained explosives, with an accuracy of 97%. In separate tests, Koniku’s sensors matched the explosives detection ability of trained dogs, he says, adding that the company is also developing sensors for use in healthcare and other industries.

“When you look at the scale of how many compounds or how many odors are affecting human life that have yet to be cataloged, we have barely scratched the surface,” says Dr. Agabi.

Aromyx Corp., a startup in Mountain View, Calif. is also using cells to make odor sensors. But instead of selling the devices, it provides a laboratory-based service to food and wine producers to help them better understand the specific odor molecules that drive consumer preferences. Company employees combine consumer-survey data with people’s likes and dislikes about how Aromyx’s bioengineered odor-detecting cells react to certain odor molecules to come up with a preference profile.

“The value is not in the sensors, but in the data,” says Josh Silverman, chief executive of Aeromix.

MIT’s Dr. Mershin is focusing on the medical applications of olfactory technology. Inspired by dogs, which have demonstrated the ability to smell deformities in humans, he is working on an artificial-intelligence odor-detection system to detect prostate cancer.

In 2021, Dr. Mershin’s team published results showing that their system matches the ability of trained dogs to detect prostate cancer in the urine of patients with the disease. Since then the team has increased the accuracy of the software to over 90%, Dr. This system is more reliable than the well-known prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test, says Mershin, which can lead to a false-positive diagnosis. , According to the National Cancer Institute, only 25% of men who undergo a prostate biopsy after a suspected PSA finding are later found to have cancer.

Sulfur experts warn that a series of scientific and technical challenges must be overcome before high-tech odor detectors are ready for widespread market penetration. For systems that use live cells, it will be important to monitor how often devices need to be replaced and how accuracy stacks up over long time frames, he says.

“The idea is great. It’s the implementation itself,” says Nathan Lewis, a chemist and olfactory-sensor developer at the California Institute of Technology.

For example, scientists and data rights experts say the rise of sophisticated molecular surveillance. Cell phones — what some experts call “smell phones” capable of detecting medical conditions — raise thorny questions of privacy. After all, the odors we constantly emit from our bodies hold clues about our health and personal choices, including the products we use and the foods we consume. Along with eating, our drinking and smoking habits and more. According to legal experts, the collection and analysis of human olfactory data may affect some insurance coverage, for example, as well as employment.

“We’re not prepared for the implications,” says David Carroll, an associate professor of media design and data-rights activist at Parsons School of Design. “It’s going to bring to the fore deep and profound moral dilemmas.”

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