One Day, a Machine Will Smell Whether You’re Sick - The New York Times

Published on 02 May 17, under Press mentions

Owlstone Medical's disease sensing Breath Biopsy® technology was featured by The New York Times. The article includes an interview with our CEO Billy Boyle.

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One Day, a Machine Will Smell Whether You’re Sick

Kate Murphy, 1st May 2017

Blindfolded, would you know the smell of your mom, a lover or a co-worker? Not the smells of their colognes or perfumes, not of the laundry detergents they use — the smells of them?

Each of us has a unique “odorprint” made up of thousands of organic compounds. These molecules offer a whiff of who we are, revealing age, genetics, lifestyle, hometown — even metabolic processes that underlie our health.

Ancient Greek and Chinese medical practitioners used a patient’s scent to make diagnoses. Modern medical research, too, confirms that the smell of someone’s skin, breath and bodily fluids can be suggestive of illness. The breath of diabetics sometimes smells of rotten apples, experts report; the skin of typhoid patients, like baking bread.

But not every physician’s nose is a precision instrument, and dogs, while adept at sniffing out cancer, get distracted. So researchers have been trying for decades to figure out how to build an inexpensive odor sensor for quick, reliable and noninvasive diagnoses.

The field finally seems on the cusp of succeeding.

“You’re seeing a convergence of technology now, so we can actually run large-scale clinical studies to get the data to prove odor analysis has real utility,” said Billy Boyle, co-founder and president of operations at Owlstone, a manufacturer of chemical sensors in Cambridge, England.

Mr. Boyle, an electronics engineer, formed the company with two friends in 2004 to develop sensors to detect chemical weapons and explosives for customers, including the United States government. But when Mr. Boyle’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Kate Gross, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, his focus shifted to medical sensors, with an emphasis on cancer detection.

Ms. Gross died at the end of 2014. That she might still be alive if her cancer had been detected earlier, Mr. Boyle said, continues to be a “big motivator.”

Owlstone has raised $23.5 million to put its odor analysis technology into the hands of clinicians. Moreover, Britain’s National Health Service is funding a 3,000-subject clinical trial to test Owlstone’s sensor to diagnose lung cancer.

The sensor is a silicon chip stacked with various metal layers and tiny gold electrodes. While it looks like your mobile phone’s SIM card, it works like a chemical filter.

The molecules in an odor sample are first ionized — given a charge — and then an electric current is used to move only chemicals of diagnostic interest through the channels etched in the chip, where they can be detected.

“You can program what you want to sniff out just by changing the software,” Mr. Boyle said. “We can use the device for our own trials on colorectal cancer, but it can also be used by our partners to look for other things, like irritable bowel disease.”

The company also is conducting a 1,400-subject trial, in collaboration with the University of Warwick, to detect colon cancer from urine samples, and is exploring whether its chips can help determine the best drugs for asthma patients by sorting through molecules in their breath.

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