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Odor Profiles To Help Detect Skin Cancers

October 7, 2008

According to new research from the Monell Center, Philadelphia, PA, odors from skin can be used to identify basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.

The findings, which were presented at the 236th meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), may open doors to the development of new methods to detect basal cell carcinoma and other forms of skin cancer, offering earlier diagnosis and improved screening capabilities. In addition, increased understanding of the chemicals related to skin odor could lead to development of more effective anti-aging skin care products.

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.

Human skin produces numerous airborne chemical molecules—volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—many of which are odorous. Researchers obtained VOC profiles from basal cell carcinoma sites in 11 patients and compared them to profiles from similar skin sites in 11 healthy controls. Both profiles contained the same array of chemicals; the difference involved the amounts of specific chemicals. They plan to characterize skin odor profiles associated with other forms of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

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

In research published online last month in the British Journal of Dermatology, Dr. Michelle Gallagher and collaborators sampled air above two skin sites (forearm and upper back) in 25 healthy male and female subjects, who ranged in age from 19 to 79. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques, they 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. The work 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.

Together, the two studies may help advance development of new methods to analyze skin for signs of altered health status. “Chemical biomarkers may eventually serve as objective clinical markers of disease if effective sensor technology can be developed,” said Monell analytical organic chemist Dr. George Preti.

Dr. Gallagher, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Preti’s laboratory at the time the research was done, currently is employed at Rohm and Haas, Spring House, PA. Also contributing to the work presented at the ACS were Charles Wysocki and Jae Kwak of the Monell Center, Steven S. Fakharzadeh and Christopher J. Miller of University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Andrew I. Spielman and Xuming Sun of New York University College of Dentistry and Chrysalyne D. Schmults of Dana Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

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