Electronic nose sniffs urine for traces of prostate cancer

New research from a team of scientists in Italy has reported successful early tests for an electronic nose system designed to sniff out prostate cancer biomarkers in urine. The technology follows on from earlier research that found trained sniffer dogs can accurately detect prostate cancer.

For several decades scientists have seen sniffer dogs effectively detect several different kinds of cancer. These findings have subsequently informed the development of e-nose technology, sensors designed to identify various volatile organic compounds (VOCs) responsible for odors.

More recently, research led by Gianluigi Taverna specifically looked at whether dogs could be trained to identify prostate cancer by simply smelling a patient’s urine. A foundational study published in 2015 suggested dogs could indeed detect prostate cancer from urine.

“This discovery confirmed that prostate tumors produce specific, volatile organic substances, technically known as VOCs, which the dog is capable of detecting with great accuracy,” Taverna explained. “We decided to build on this ability in order to develop a high-tech diagnostic device that could become part of everyday clinical practice.”

The project, dubbed Diag-Nose, produced a prototype electronic nose system designed to detect specific VOCs in urine that have been linked to positive prostate cancer patients. A new study published in the International Journal of Urology has reported the results of the first preliminary tests of this novel technology.

Just under 200 urine samples were collected, half from patients with confirmed prostate cancer and half from a healthy control group. The e-nose system demonstrated 85% accuracy in detecting the prostate cancer samples. The system also demonstrated 79% specificity, meaning one out of five healthy patients received a result positive for prostate cancer.

While this is a relatively high false positive rate, the researchers suggest that in combination with other tools such as blood tests and biopsies, the e-nose system could help some patients avoid unnecessary invasive procedures. Taverna, and colleague Fabio Grizzi, also see the technology improving as it is further refined, and larger trials to validate its potential are planned.

“For the electronic nose to effectively become a part of everyday clinical practice, further large-scale studies will be necessary, which will allow us to confirm the results already obtained and to develop the prototype’s potential,” addedTaverna and Grizzi. “Therefore, the next step towards making the electronic nose a reality is to validate it by involving international clinical institutes.”

This research is far from the first to try and develop an electronic nose system to sniff out prostate cancer from urine samples. Several studies in recent years have demonstrated the idea’s veracity, however, none have yet progressed from prototype to broad clinical use.

The new study was published in the International Journal of Urology.

Source: Politecnico di Milano

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