A knowing nose
By Amy Loeffler
It seems that uniquely human attributes are being upstaged by electronic counterparts at every turn these days. Now you can add a hypersensitive sense of smell to the list of ways artificial intelligence reigns supreme over organic olfactory sensibilities.
Electronic noses are being used by Kumar Mallikarjunan, associate professor of biological systems engineering, and his fellow researchers in two vastly different endeavors: detecting prostate cancer and evaluating fruit ripeness. The common denominator for the applications is the ability of the electronic nose to detect biomarkers using algorithms, polymers, and sensors that detect irregularities in biological systems.
“Electronic noses are much more sensitive than our human noses,” said Mallikarjunan. “They read unique ‘smellprints’ similar to our fingerprints that are made up of chemical patterns that can be recognized time and again.”
Mallikarjunan has partnered with researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute to improve the ability to diagnose prostate cancer. The nose investigates ways to make testing much less invasive while improving the detection of the prostate cancer cells.
Because certain metabolites are passed through urine in a patient with cancer, the artificial nose works by sensing or “sniffing” metabolites in a urine sample. The process can take as little as two hours using the artificial nose.
Mallikarjunan has also partnered with Bruce Zoecklein, professor emeritus of food science and technology, to evaluate grape ripeness using a handheld apparatus affectionately called the Cyranose 320, in a nod to the nasally endowed French poet Cyrano de Bergerac.
The artificial nose works by placing a plastic bag over the grape cluster and inserting an electronic sensor that is composed of an array of nanocomposite sensors and advanced pattern-recognition algorithms that detect and recognize chemical vapors. The preprogrammed algorithms provide data that allow growers to measure grape ripeness.