This new electronic ‘nose’ could sniff out disease

British scientists have invented an electronic ‘nose’ to sniff out potentially deadly bacteria.

Clostridium difficile (often known as C. diff) is an infection that causes abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss and a fever, and can be fatal: 1646 people in England and Wales died from it in 2012. It’s commonly contracted in hospital and spreads quickly. But there are different strains of the disease, so finding the right treatment can be touch-and-go.

Researchers from the University of Leicester wondered if these strains, some of which are more deadly, smelled differently. So they developed an electronic detection device using a mass spectrometer, which measures the mass of chemicals, to see if it could identify a difference between the stenches given off by each individual strain of C. diff. It turns out, it could: each one has its own unique odour, like a chemical fingerprint, and by being able to quickly identify which one a patient has, doctors should be able to tailor their treatment accordingly and hopefully prevent the illness from spreading.

The next step is to use it in hospitals, but there’s no way to sugar coat this: that’ll mean using poo samples. Yep. Hey, no one said medical research was glamorous. But if it becomes a routine part of analysing patients’ wellbeing, it could save lives. Might SERIOUSLY be time to think about paying nurses more, though.

Image credit: University of Leicester.

Diane Shipley