'Scent device' aims to sniff out bladder cancer

Researchers develop a "scent device" they hope may prove to be a reliable way to detect cancer in patients' urine before it becomes a serious problem.

Ryan Jaslow
Ryan Jaslow is CBSNews.com's health editor.
Ryan Jaslow
3 min read

Bladder cancer kills more than 15,000 Americans each year, and is expected to cause about 73,000 new cancer cases in 2013.

Researchers report they have developed a "scent device" called the Odoreader that they hope may prove to be a reliable way to sniff out cancer in patients' urine before it becomes a serious problem.

The Odoreader device correctly predicted 100 percent of bladder cancer cases from urine samples tested, researchers reported. University of Liverpool

More than 500,000 bladder cancer survivors live in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Nine out of 10 of those affected are 55 years of age or older.

"It is a disease that, if caught early, can be treated effectively, but unfortunately we do not have any early screening methods other than diagnosis through urine tests at the stage when it starts to become a problem," study researcher Dr. Chris Probert, a professor at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Translational Medicine in the U.K., said in a news release.

Most cases of bladder cancer begin in cells that line the inside of the bladder, the Mayo Clinic notes. It can cause symptoms like blood in the urine, frequent or painful urination, and back and pelvic pain.

The BRCA biomarker is sometimes used to screen for risk of breast and ovarian cancers. But, currently there are aren't reliable biomarkers -- or measurable molecular signs of a disease -- that can be used to screen for bladder cancer, according to the study authors.

That's where the Odoreader could come in.

Previous research suggests dogs can successfully sniff out bladder cancer, as 60 Minutes reported in 2005. Dogs are now being utilized by some health care facilities to try and spot other types of cancers, including ovarian types.

The researchers speculated the dogs were picking up the scents of certain gasses emitted by urine. They built a device that contains a sensor that can analyze the gases and create a readout of the chemicals found in the urine within 30 minutes.

They tested it on 24 samples taken from patients with confirmed cases of bladder cancer and 74 samples from patients who had urological symptoms, but no confirmed cancer. The Odoreader correctly picked 100 percent of the cancer patients.

The study was published July 8 in PLoS One.

Prober added that bladder cancer can be expensive to treat because of multiple scopes required to track the cancer's development, so the new test may dramatically cut costs.

Other ways to diagnose bladder cancer include a cytoscope tube with a lens inserted through the urethra under local anesthesia, imaging tests of the urinary tract, a biopsy or a urine test to look for presence of cancer cells, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"The researchers say that the test would be around 96% accurate in practice and their findings are only based on a relatively small number of samples, taken only from men," Dr. Sarah Hazell, senior science communications officer at the nonprofit Cancer Research U.K., said to the BBC.

She added while the work is promising, there's still a ways to go.

"It is another promising step towards detecting bladder cancer from urine samples, something that would ultimately provide a less invasive means of diagnosing the disease," she commented.

This story originally appeared as "Scent device ODOREADER may sniff out bladder cancer" on CBSNews.com.