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Sniffing out a disease: The E-Nose Solution

The phrase ‘having a nose’ signifies the natural ability to detect something. He had a nose for trouble or she has a nose for trends highlights an individual’s special talent to spot something more than others

Sayantan Nandi | Updated on: Saturday, April 09, 2022, 11:15 PM IST

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The phrase ‘having a nose’ signifies the natural ability to detect something. He had a nose for trouble or she has a nose for trends highlights an individual’s special talent to spot something more than others.

A more concrete meaning has been given to this quaint phrase by two Chinese scientists as per a study by the scientific journal ACS Omega. Chen Xing and Liu Jun of Zhejiang University, have invented an electronic nose which can apparently detect Parkinson’s disease much before it actually sets in.

The origin to this invention starts with Joyce Milne, a retired Scottish nurse. Mrs Milne discovered her ability to sense Parkinson’s disease when she could smell a special odour from her husband, who was suffering from the disease. Her hunch turned into certainty when she identified the symptoms of the disease on a person much before it actually set in. The news of Mrs Milne’s ability to detect Parkinson’s through her heightened olfactory sense prompted researchers to delve deeper into the story. What they discovered was that while motor symptoms signal the setting in of PD, increased secretion of sebum and generation of enzymes and hormones releases a certain odour which helps in diagnosing PD patients.

Since cloning the likes of Mrs Milne was certainly not feasible, researchers chose to use gas chromatography, (GC) –mass spectrometry to analyse the odour compounds. This again, proved to be tedious as the machines were heavy, slow and the process expensive. A quick fix was required.

Electronic noses based on MOS (metal oxide semiconductor) to detect excess methanol in liquor have been in use by Chinese researchers for quite a while. Elsewhere, in Spain, electronic noses have been known to be used to identify tobacco types and cigarette brands.

These examples motivated Chen Xing and Liu Jun to try out their idea by developing an e-nose to detect PD. With the help of funding from several key research institutes, including National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Key Research Project of China, they have developed a crystal electronic-nose equipped with an e-sensor which can detect odour through their interaction with sound waves. Built-in algorithms drive the accuracy percentages which are currently around 79%. Interestingly, Mrs Milne’s detection accuracy of 99%, which is way higher, still remains a mystery. Till we reach those levels, one hopes that the e-nose enables the required breakthrough in providing an easy-to use and inexpensive solution for early stage detection of Parkinson’s disease.

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Published on: Sunday, April 10, 2022, 07:00 AM IST