The Electric Nose: Sniffing Out Diseases

The Greek physician Hippocrates, born in 460 BC,  is considered to be one of the greatest medical professionals of all time. Do you recognise the name? He famously instructed his students to sniff the breath of their patients as a way of determining ailments and established illnesses as separate from divine intervention. When qualifying, doctors must take the ‘Hippocratic Oath’. Does he sound familiar now?

Fast forward 2,477 years and Hippocrates’ method has been scientifically proven by a team of 56 researchers across five countries led by Professor Hossam Haick of The Technion Institute of Technology Israel. Haick has been named as one of the World’s Top 35 Young Scientists and has worked across Nanotechnology, Nanosensors and Molecular Electronics. He has also collaborated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the diagnosis of diseases.

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Source: Technion UK

Haick and his team developed a device they call the ‘Electric Nose’ that can distinguish cancer and 17 specific diseases in a person’s breath. This non-invasive technology has the potential to completely change the process of diagnosing a patient with an illness. Haick explained at Technion UK’s ‘Sniffing Cancer’ Ron Arad lecture and dinner last night that for every disease there is a unique molecular structure. Similar to your fingerprint, your breath provides an exclusive biological signature.

How does it work? When cancer starts to emerge in the human body it is in very small components within the blood. As your blood moves through your body it reaches your lungs where these components appear in your breath cells. All you have to do is take one simple breath in and out of a tube which then uses receptors to catch all of the molecules in your breath using structures that measure 1 billionth of a meter. Through using AI the ‘Electric Nose’ can determine what form of cancer you have along with another 17 diseases with over 90% accuracy. It can also determine if your cancer is benign or malignant and recognise pre-cancerous cells all through breathing into a tube for a few short seconds.


Haick testing out the reactors and watching as the results appear on his phone. Source: Technion UK

The ‘Electric Nose’ clearly has the power to revolutionise the way people can be diagnosed in the future. However, there are issues that do arise when considering rolling out this technology. In the medical sector, it can take years of testing, regulation changes, medical court proceedings and further testing before a new device or medicine can be offered to the public. Although I understand why this is the case it does make me feel as though there is a conflict. An incredible, life-changing device or medication has to sit on a shelf whilst regulation authorities debate whether it can be rolled out or not. A process which can take up to 4 years. With an early diagnosis a cancer patient has a 70% survival rate whereas compared to a late diagnosis it falls to just 10%. Is there anyway way to speed up this process? I would hope so but when it comes to the law and medical regulations it might be a very long time before there is any change.

Haick and his team are dedicated to the product being inexpensive and easy to use but the advanced engineering and technological skills required to create it come at a price. If a large pharmaceutical company invests in and manufactures it then this issue could certainly be solved but what will that mean in the long term for these companies? Will they eventually lose money by investing in a non-invasive, quick and inexpensive device?

Will the ‘Electric Nose’ pose any ethical issues? Once you have your breath test who sees the result? If the patient sees the result they could possibly misunderstand the results or misuse them. Haick explained that there needs to be ethical guidelines to define how the device can be used and how the results are shared and would want the results would go directly to your clinical doctor.

I was completely blown away after listening to Haick’s lecture and believe that his team should be given more funding so they can start pushing out the ‘Electric Nose’ as soon as possible. With any innovative technology, even one based on an ancient Greek theory, there will usually be issues similar to those mentioned above. However, the ‘Electric Nose’, to me at least, is a fascinating and transformative device that will change lives all over the world and should be available asap!


*I do not own the featured image. Source:


1 Comment

  1. Arife Tina
    April 28, 2018 / 9:47 am

    I have been with a cancer pation in a room and smelt cancer .
    Then few years before my father was diagnosed i told to my older sister his breth its seems he has somwthing like that.
    But she never said anything until recetly she mantion you did know .
    I said i can recognise people from breath.
    As its true all your organism its different then and you will have different smel of tour breath. I bealive on this that you do know when someane has cancer from breath.

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