Researchers in the UK have developed a device that can help diagnose the early stages of bladder cancer by “sniffing” the gas emitted from urine.

The device analyzes the chemicals in the urine odor and produces a profile readout that shows whether cancer cells are present in the bladder.

Called Odoreader, it is the result of a collaboration between the University of Liverpool and the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol.

Every year in the UK around 10,000 people find out they have bladder cancer. But unlike breast cancer and cervical cancer, at present there are no reliable biomarkers for bladder cancer screening.

Study author Chris Probert, from Liverpool’s Institute of Translational Medicine, explains:

“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.”

Research with dogs shows it is possible to train them to sniff out certain chemicals with great accuracy. For example, one study showed how dogs can smell the presence of Clostridium difficile in samples of feces as well as the air around patients in hospital.

There has also been some success with getting dogs to detect bladder cancer in urine, say the researchers, who cite a study reported in BMJ in 2004 in which dogs trained to respond to urine samples from patients with bladder cancer had a success rate much greater than what would happen by chance.

Co-author Norman Ratcliffe, a professor at UWE Bristol’s Institute of Biosensor Technology, says while it is thought that dogs can smell cancer, it is not a practical way for hospitals to diagnose disease. Ratcliffe adds:

We have developed a device that can give us a profile of the odour in urine. It reads the gases that chemicals in the urine can give off when the sample is heated.”

Bladder cancer is said to be the most expensive cancer to treat. One reason is the repeated use of scopes to monitor the development of the cancer cells in the bladder.

The new device promises to dramatically cut these costs by preventing use of scopes, says Probert.

To operate the device, which is about twice the size of a payment card reader, you insert a bottle containing the urine and start the analyzer. About half an hour later, the computer screen readout shows if the sample comes from a patient with bladder cancer.

Probert says:

We looked at 98 samples of urine to develop the device, and tested it on 24 patient samples known to have cancer and 74 samples that have urological symptoms, but no cancer. The device correctly assigned 100% of cancer patients.”

He says they are very encouraged by the results, and are now looking to test the device with a larger sample of patients before it can be used in hospitals.

Probert, Ratcliffe and some of the other authors of the study have a patent relating to the device.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD