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The concentration of certain molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by a cancer may ultimately contribute to accurate diagnosis of skin cancer. These results were recently presented at the 2008 annual American Chemical Society meeting.

Human skin naturally releases into the air VOCs that vary in chemical composition as well as concentrations. Data has indicated that concentrations of VOCs differ according to age and produce a scent to which animals may be particularly sensitive. Researchers have been evaluating scent in the diagnosis of cancers, as previous research has indicated that dogs can differentiate between benign and cancerous moles with high accuracy.

Scientists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania recently conducted a clinical study to further evaluate VOCs and their potential utility in cancer diagnosis; this approach evaluates specific concentrations of VOCs using “odor profiles.” The study included 25 healthy individuals aged 19 to 79 years who had VOCs measured from their upper back and forearm skin.

  • Concentrations of VOCs differed between age groups and sites of skin.
  • Concentrations of VOCs also differed among areas that contained basal cell carcinoma and healthy skin.
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The researchers concluded that, although further study is necessary, it appears that differing concentrations of VOCs can be used to differentiate between BCC and healthy skin. The authors also stated that “Chemical biomarkers may eventually serve as objective clinical markers of disease if effective sensor technology can be developed.” There are plans to use odor profiles for two other types of skin cancer: squamous cell skin cancer and melanoma.

Reference: Gallagher M, Wysocki C, Leyden J, et al. Detecting skin cancer using volatile biomarkers. British Journal of Dermatology [early online publication]. July 14, 2008. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08748.x.