Electronic Nose Sniffs Out Prostate Cancer, Revolutionising Detection

15-12-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Recognising the challenges faced by cancer detection, researchers recently demonstrated an electronic nose that can identify prostate cancer from urine samples. What challenges does prostate cancer present, what did the researchers develop, and how could such sensors help future cancer diagnosis?

What challenges does prostate cancer introduce?

Over the past 100 years, the field of medicine has come leaps and bounds in improving healthcare. The discovery of penicillin allowed for dangerous bacterial infections to be eliminated, the development of the smallpox vaccine literally eradicated the natural existence of the virus, and the numerous imaging technologies such as x-ray and MRI have allowed doctors to peer inside the human body without doing any damage whatsoever. 

While doctors and researchers continue to identify causes of death, the most significant two by far are heart disease and cancer. Heart disease is tricky to identify as heart conditions can go unnoticed, and when it finally shows up as a heart attack, death is likely to occur. Cancer, however, is a particularly cruel disease as it is not easy to cure, can be difficult to identify, and when symptoms start to show, it can already be too late. This is especially true for breast and ovarian cancers, which is why it is so imperative that women have frequent check-ups. One area of analysis in prostate cancer that has shown promise is the use of electronic noses to detect the disease in its early stages. By identifying cancer early on, patients have a better chance of successful treatment and improved outcomes. 

The male equivalent of breast cancer could be considered prostate cancer, but what makes it particularly unusual is that prostate cancer itself is not fatal. Furthermore, prostate cancer is very easy to treat if caught early, with a survival rate of over 98%. However, prostate cancer is lethal because if the cancer cells metastasise (where it separates from the prostate and moves around the body), those new cancers can quickly lead to death. From personal experience, my grandfather had prostate cancer that went undiagnosed, and by the time the cancer had reached his bones, he passed away within 4 weeks. If he had been subjected to prostate cancer screening (something which the NHS seems to be entirely incapable of doing), it would have been found, removed, and likely given him another decade of life. Early diagnosis of prostate cancer is crucial for successful treatment and improved outcomes. By identifying cancer early on, patients have a better chance of successful treatment and improved outcomes.

Researchers create electronic noise to sniff for prostate cancer

Checking for prostate cancer used to be done using a physical examination which is well known for numerous jokes and innuendoes, but as this technique is unreliable, blood tests are now conducted. While this does work, it can be an expensive and off-putting procedure to have done, and this also requires individuals to remember to get check-ups done while ordering the right kind of blood test.

One potential solution to identifying prostate cancer has been found in dogs which have the ability to detect numerous cancers in patients simply from their scent. In fact, this skill was clinically tested and proven in a paper published in 2015, leading researchers to wonder if it is possible to electronically detect cancer signatures on individuals. 

Now, researchers from Italy have published their findings on a device that, while still in the prototyping stage, is capable of detecting trace amounts of prostate cancer markers in urine samples. Instead of submerging the device into a urine sample, it instead incorporates an electronic noise that can detect trace amounts of VOCs that correspond to prostate cancer. 

According to the researchers, their device provided a detection accuracy of 85% and a 79% specificity, meaning that 1 in 5 healthy individuals would be given a false positive result. However, such a device would be used in conjunction with a blood test to confirm the positive result. Additionally, as the device is only in its prototyping stage, it still requires refinement and is nowhere near ready for real-world medical use.

How could such sensors help future diagnoses?

Prostate cancer isn’t the only cancer that is likely to leave traces in urine and faeces, and the development of electronic noses could see the creation of smart toilets. While the idea may sound unusual, having sensors integrated into toilets capable of basic diagnostics could help identify potential problems in their early stages. If combined with other sensors (such as colour spectrometers), it could even provide an in-depth analysis of the state of one’s bowels and urine content, including sugar, blood, and salts.

If such devices could be developed, it would further realise a future whereby individuals take the diagnosis and basic medical treatment into their own hands. Going into the far future, it is likely that people will look back into the past and wonder why people in the 21st century thought it was a good idea to put all the sick people into the same space where diseases can easily spread (secondary infections are common in hospitals, and are caused by the close proximity to other patients).

The device developed by the researchers is still in the prototyping stage, but with more time, it is likely that it will become a major method for the rapid detection of cancers that are easily curable if caught early. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.