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Dr Chris Probert is a Professor of Gastroenterology at the University of Liverpool. Over the last few years, Chris and his team have been working on a machine that “sniffs out” cancer. It identifies a unique scent associated with different types of cancer and, in its initial tests, highlights when these scents are found with encouraging accuracy.

Chris and a product designer are currently trying to make the prototype machine – which is the size of a large microwave – into a feasible product for the medical profession. Here are five things we learned about this innovative cancer detection technology from Chris’s appearance in the University of Liverpool podcast.  

5 things we learned about detecting cancer using a smelling machine

  1. Invasive testing could soon be a thing of the past
    Testing for both bladder and prostate cancer currently involves invasive procedures. For bladder cancer, a camera the size of a typical pen refill is used. “There’s only one way in,” says Chris, “and that’s through your water works… That will make most people’s eyes water.” Prostate cancer checks can involve physical examinations, blood tests, and needle-type devices being passed into the prostate. But Chris’s new machine simply analyses a urine sample – potentially reducing the discomfort and anxieties of millions of people around the world.  
  2. Long waits could also disappear
    Testing for bladder or prostate cancer is not just an uncomfortable process – it is also slow and frustrating. From seeing a doctor through to being referred to a specialist, securing an examination appointment and waiting for results, the current process can stretch over several weeks. But if Chris’s machine is on site when a patient submits their urine sample, a diagnosis can be made within an hour. He says: “We should be able to give you an answer within 30 to 40 minutes about whether the sample has got the fingerprints of prostate cancer or bladder cancer.”  
  3. Dogs provided the initial proof of concept
    Trained dogs can sniff out prostate cancer in faeces samples with roughly 80 per cent accuracy. The fact a dog can recognise a specific smell in cancer samples prompted Chris’s team to “build a device that can replicate that, but is perhaps more suitable for a clinical environment.” Now this new technology can work 24/7, providing it has a power supply – putting it at a distinct advantage to our canine friends. “Sooner or later,” says Chris, “they’re just going to want to go off and do something else.”  
  4. Other diseases might come next
    Chris’s initial focuses have been bladder and prostate cancer. But other areas such as bowel cancer and liver cancer are also being explored. Some even believe there is potential to look for signs of lung cancer and specific lung infections. “It’s easy to get people to breath into a tube and study that gas,” says Chris.  
  5. The technology’s impact could stretch beyond medicine
    Food spoilage is just one field where Chris’s technology could be harnessed. He believes the burden on food waste management could be significantly reduced. “There may be potential in the food industry to look for foods that are still edible before they become tainted,” he says. “It might be able to extend, for example, shelf life if you know a product is still going to be safe and palatable.”  

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only)

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online health programmes? Find out more about our APHEA-accredited online Master of Public Health (MPH), online MPH – International Public Health, online MPH – Management of Health Systems.

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