Monell Identifies the Scent of Skin Cancer

The Monell Chemical Senses Center may have identified the odor of skin cancer, a discovery that might be used to develop new ways of identifying basal cell carcinoma. The center presented its research at the 236th meeting of the American Chemical Society.

The researchers sampled air above basal cell tumors and found a different profile of chemical compounds compared to skin located at the same sites in healthy control subjects. The researchers obtained the volatile organic compound (VOC) profiles from basal cell carcinoma sites in 11 patients and compared them to profiles from similar skin sites in 11 healthy controls.

Although the profiles contained the same array of chemicals, the amounts of specific chemicals differed. The researchers plan to characterize skin odor profiles associated with other forms of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

To identify changes related to cancer, the researchers first needed to identify a normative profile for VOCs and to determine whether this profile varies as a function of age, gender or body site.

The British Journal of Dermatology published research where the air above forearm and upper back in 25 healthy male and female subjects ranging from 19 to 79 was sampled. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques, the researchers identified almost 100 different chemical compounds coming from skin. The normative skin profile varied between the two body sites, with differences in both the types and concentrations of VOCs. Aging did not influence the types of VOCs found in the profiles; however, certain chemicals were present in greater amounts in older versus younger subjects. This work reportedly provides the first comprehensive characterization of skin volatile organic chemicals at sites other than the underarm in people of different ages and genders.

Previous studies of human skin had used either male or female subjects and had only examined one skin area. Implications of the research are wide-ranging. The VOC studies of the skin above skin cancer studies may help advance development of new methods to analyze skin for signs of altered health status. It may also lead to early screening of skin cancer and possibly to more effective antiaging products.

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