The Bees Knees: How Bees Can Smell Disease in Humans

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Honey bee on a flower at Lambley Nursery, Ascot, Victoria. Photo credit: Melita White

Bees are extraordinary animals. We rely on bees for the pollination of over 70% of our food crops in the global food supply, so they are essential for our existence. No pollination, no food. Simple. Colonies of bees have been diminishing worldwide in alarming rates in recent years, which should be of great concern to us all. The Varroa mite, along with certain crop fertilisers, insecticides and other human-made chemicals, are to blame. You can read more about the bee problem in this CNN article.

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Susana Soares’ glass diagnostic tool. Photo credit: Susana Soares.

What does this have to do with perfume, or the sense of smell, you may ask? Well, it seems that this essential species isn’t just good at helping humans to stay alive by pollinating our food crops. They may also be able to help detect diseases such as certain cancers, tuberculosis, and diabetes, in their early stages, and therefore help save lives. A bee’s sense of smell, more than 100 times more powerful than ours, can detect changes in the odour of human breath that occur when these diseases are present.

Designer and artist Susana Soares has designed a series of devices for detecting these illnesses, in collaboration with Inscentinel UK, a biotechnology firm. They are simple, yet very beautiful glass objects that consist of two chambers: the main chamber that the bees are in and which the person breathes into, and a sub-chamber that the bees move towards if they detect any bio-markers of illness in the person’s breath. The bees have been trained, Pavlov-style, using sugar treats as rewards, to detect certain smells (pheremones) that only exist in the breath when these illnesses are present. You can read all about Susana Soares’ amazing devices here and also over at her website, where there is a more detailed explanation of the processes she used, her research, the collaborative process, and how the bees were trained.

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How Smell Works: Olfactory Cells Heal Paralysed Man in Breakthrough Treatment

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A coronal section through the main olfactory bulb of an adult male mouse. “Mouse MOB three color” by Matt Valley – Released by author. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week I posted a link to an interesting article about how olfactory receptors are not just in our noses, as previously thought, but can actually be found throughout our bodies. Scientists have discovered that there is the potential for healing damaged skin and tissue with the application of various aromachemicals to damaged areas. You can read more about these discoveries and find the link to the article via my How Smell Works: It’s Not All in the Nose blog post.

This week, another interesting article made headlines around the world, again demonstrating the powerful healing potential of olfactory cells in the human body. In this case, cells taken from the olfactory bulbs in the brain of Darek Fidyka, a 38-year-old Bulgarian man, were used to heal his severed spinal cord. Darek has now learnt to walk again and can drive a car. You can read more about this incredible finding in this ABC News article.  If you want to read a little more about the method scientists used in the procedure, this article from The Guardian contains some good information.

Here is a short extract from the ABC News article:

The breakthrough came after four decades of research by Professor Geoff Raisman, from the University College London, who spotted the potential of cells that repair damage to nasal nerves.

The circuitry that gives rise to the sense of smell is the only part of the nervous system that constantly regenerates.

“The idea was to take something from an area where the nervous system can repair itself, and does throughout life, and put it into an area that doesn’t repair itself,” Professor Raisman said.

“I believe this is the moment when paralysis can be reversed.”

Amazing stuff! Enjoy reading and let me know what you think in the comments section below.

How Smell Works: It’s not all in the nose

Andreas Vesalius, olfactory bulbs, from “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”, 1543.

I hope to be able to share with you, from time to time, articles that are both interesting, and which challenge our collective, accepted knowledge about things. As this is a perfume blog, the nose, and how we smell, are central concepts. So… how do we smell? Many of us would answer “with our noses”; but is it just with our noses that we experience scent? You would be forgiven for answering “yes”, but researchers over the past decade or so have discovered that olfactory receptors (the things that are in our noses that allow us to smell) are also situated throughout our bodies, in many of our organs, and even in sperm. These receptors react in such interesting ways to the application of various aromas or scent chemicals, that they provide new potential methods of healing the body, and show promise in repairing things like damaged skin and muscle tissue.

This kind of discovery reminds me of recent findings regarding the presence of enormous quantities of neurotransmitters and serotonin in the human stomach. So, you literally feel with your stomach and have a second “brain” down there, albeit one that functions (thinks and feels) differently to the one in your head. That gut feeling you have about something, really is a gut feeling.

I love it when things don’t fit into neat boxes, and when we discover previously unknown connections between things. So, in today’s post, I want to share with you this very exciting article from the New York Times. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

You can read Smell Turns Up in Unexpected Places by Alex Stone here.