Saturday, August 30, 2008

NASA's 'electronic nose' could sniff out cancer

From rocket science to brain surgery: a device designed to sniff out leaks on the space shuttle may soon guide surgeons as they operate on cancer patients.

The ENose was originally developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to detect low-level leaks of ammonia in shuttles. It is based on polymer films whose electrical conductivity varies as they encounter different substances. Now its creators believe the ENose could act as a highly sensitive detector of the characteristic compounds produced by cancer cells.

Such a device could be invaluable for surgeons operating on areas where spotting tumour tissue is particularly tricky. Surgeons currently rely on visual inspection to locate cancerous tissue, referring back to scans taken before surgery. But brain tissue, for example, is hard to distinguish from cancer, and it also changes shape when the skull is opened, so the scans don't match what the surgeon sees. That makes it difficult to cut out all the cancerous tissue while avoiding damage to healthy areas.

Babak Kateb of City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, says the ENose has correctly diagnosed lung cancer and diabetes in patients who have breathed into it. He and his colleagues believe the device could be linked to other brain imaging and mapping devices to create a real-time high-resolution image of the brain that pinpoints cancer hotspots.

The work was presented at the International Brain Mapping & Intraoperative Surgical Planning Society Conference at the University of California, Los Angeles this week.

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