Weird Science Weekly: Getting sick stinks… literally


In this week's installment of Weird Science Weekly, we're looking at a couple of the strangest science stories from the past week, and it's all about sickness, and how we can actually use smell to detect it...

People may be able to smell sickness

Okay, based on the typical response to getting really sick — namely just lying in bed, foregoing our typically hygiene regimen and just getting someone kind to bring us chicken soup and tissues — we probably don't end up smelling too well. However, researchers are looking into whether or not there's something deeper to this.

According to researchers working out of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, people are able to tell, just by smell, if someone's immune system is working overtime to repel some virus or other infection.

"There may be early, possibly generic, biomarkers for illness in the form of volatile substances coming from the body," Mats Olsson, the lead researcher for the study who works in the institute's Department of Clinical Neuroscience, said in a statement.

The study involved giving volunteers an injection that either had saline (the control) or lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a substance found in the membranes of bacteria, which is one of the things our immune system watches out for as it defends us against illness. They were then given tight t-shirts to wear over the next several hours, which would absorb their sweat, and these t-shirts were used with another group of volunteers who would smell the samples. Even though an examination of the shirts by the researchers showed they all had the same amount of 'odorous compounds', most of those in the second volunteer group reported that the shirts from those injected with LPS smelled stronger, more unpleasant, and even more unhealthy.

The researchers still need to figure out exactly which compounds are causing the 'unhealthy' smell, but further study may help contain infectious disease.

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Fruit flies have a nose... I mean antenna... for cancer

Okay, fruit flies don't have noses. They use their antennae to smell things, and scientists at the University of Konstanz in Germany and the University La Sapienza in Italy have found that they're actually able to 'sniff out' cancer cells from healthy ones.

Using a special imaging technique to 'watch' the fruit fly's brain activity, the researchers exposed the flies to different types of cells — healthy ones and ones from five different types of breast cancer — and they were able to see how different types of cells caused a different pattern of neurons to be activated.

"As not only cancer cells can be distinguished from healthy cells, but also subgroups were discernible within the cancer cells, it seems that even different types of breast cancer cells can be differentiated via the antenna of Drosophila," Alja Lüdke, a member of the research team, said in a statement.

Their findings showed that the scent receptors of the fruit flies were even more sensitive than any mechanical means we have to detect cancer (like 'electronic noses' or gas chromatography). It certainly doesn't look very comfortable for the fruit fly, but learning more about this could give us new ways of detecting cancer and even figuring out what kind of cancer, just from a slight exposure to the cells.

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images, University of Konstanz)

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