A nose for the future

By Robert Hickson 23/10/2014


It’s been a big time for noses recently. Who would have picked that?

First up, a paper in PLOS ONE  indicated that losing one’s sense of smell may be a predictor (statistically speaking) of your demise (at least if you are older than 57). The authors speculate

Olfactory function is thus one of the strongest predictors of 5-year mortality and may serve as a bellwether for slowed cellular regeneration or as a marker of cumulative toxic environmental exposures.

Many folk, young and old, have sniffed at these results, proclaiming that they can’t smell a thing and have been hale and hearty for many a year. That’s not surprising, since the research only demonstrated an increase in risk not a deterministic consequence.

If its true then lets hope that treatments can be developed so it will be even more desirable to stop and smell the roses.

On a more life affirming note there was the widely reported story of the paralysed man with a severed spinal cord learning to walk again after a transplant of olfactory ensheathing cells  and some nerve tissue from his ankle. The ensheathing cells help bridge the cut cord and protect the nerve cells, helping to re-establish electrical contact. The nose it seems is a more dynamic environment than most of us suspect.

Transplant of nasal stem cells several years ago into the spine of a paraplegic woman wasn’t successful, and later a tumorous mass of nasal cells had to be removed.

Nasal tissue may be a good source of new cartilage for knees, potentially helping many people with arthritis as well as those with joint injuries.

And dogs are being used to sniff out cancer as a step to identifying the chemicals that may be indicative of their presence. A range of other illnesses may also be detectable through scent.

Odor biometrics may be an emerging field too. We all apparently have our own unique smell, regardless of what products we use.

Zach Challies from Victoria University of Wellington recently won a design award for a 3D printed nose prosthetic.

A more sophisticated model of a dog’s nose has also been printed to help study the aerodynamics of sniffing. This could lead to better sensor technologies for the detection of bombs, drugs, and other dangerous or unwanted things.

There are already a range of electronic noses – such as NZ’s Syft Technologies. And, naturally, a robotic nose has been developed which could be used for a range of applications.

But, as these nasal examples illustrate, it is to be expected that greater mimicry or co-option of nature will help create more effective electronic systems (some perhaps more welcome than others) and medical treatments.