Scientists determine 'scent' of skin cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists have reported identifying an 'odour profile' from skin cancer tissue samples that might be able to be used to diagnose the disease.

Dr Michelle Gallagher, an analytical chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, said: "Researchers have speculated that tumours give off different odours, but we're the first to identify and quantify the compounds involved in skin cancer odours.

"This research opens doors to potential new approaches to skin cancer diagnosis based on the profile of skin odours, hopefully leading to more rapid and non-invasive detection and diagnosis of this prevalent disease."

Cancer Research UK was cautious about the results.

Dr Lara Bennett, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "The idea that we could one day detect skin cancer by measuring the scented chemicals released from our skin is extremely interesting, but it's far from clear whether this could work in practice.

"Our skin releases many different chemicals, and their levels depend on many factors including the area of the body and the age of the person - factors that would make developing a national skin cancer screen based on detecting them extremely difficult," she added.

"As well as having to overcome these practical hurdles, these preliminary results are only from a very small number of patients. Larger studies, and more research, is required to work out whether designing a screening test based on these chemicals would be practical."

The discovery was made by analysing the air above tumour sites in 11 people with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.

The chemical profile of the air was compared against profiles from the skin of 11 cancer-free volunteers and Dr Gallagher confirmed that they found differences.

"The same chemicals are present, but at skin cancer sites some chemicals are increased, while others are decreased compared to healthy individuals," she revealed.

The researchers now hope to identify profiles for the other two forms of skin cancer - squamous cell cancer and the more serious melanoma - and develop a handheld scanner that can be waved above the skin to sample air and provide a reliable diagnosis.

The findings were presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society and Dr Gallagher added: "Our findings may someday allow doctors to screen for and diagnose skin cancers at very early stages."