The biotechnology firm MouSensor, Inc., a City University of New York (CUNY) spin-off is developing a platform to digitize odors perceived through the human sense of smell.
“What Google has done for data, we want to do for the sense of smell. It organized information and made it accessible. We want to establish the first-ever digital database of smell,” said Paul Feinstein, associate professor at CUNY and director of MouSensor, Inc., during a talk given at FAPESP Week New York.
The meeting, held at the City University of New York (CUNY) November 26-28, 2018, involved Brazilian and U.S. researchers with the aim of strengthening research partnerships.
Feinstein has studied the field of olfaction since 1986. In the article published in the journal Cell, in 2016, his team described the development of transgenic mice with a refined sense of smell. In the study, the researchers introduced the odorant receptor genes into the DNA of the mice. In this way, they can be fine-tuned to different levels of sensitivity to any odor.
The development of the super sniffer mice served as a basis for the creation of what the firm calls “nose-on-a-chip” technology, capable of detecting odors. “The firm has two main goals: decoding human olfaction and using olfaction as a way to diagnose diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, tuberculosis and cancer,” he said.
Feinstein said that the firm’s second goal was the idea of the PhD student he advised, Charlotte D’Hulst. She is the first author on the Cell article. “Perhaps that is why she is the firm’s CEO and I’m the CSO [Chief Science Officer],” he said.
During the presentation, the researcher explained that odors can serve as indicators of a number of diseases. “Today it’s possible to diagnose tuberculosis by its odor. Relatives of patients with Parkinson’s diseases have also reported a change in the odor of these patients after they began presenting initial symptoms of the disease,” he said.
In this way, it will be possible to advance what Feinstein calls Odoromics. “Although the receptors for smell were identified in 1991, precisely how the olfactory system binds is not yet fully understood. Only 10% of all human odorant receptors have a known ligand. We have not advanced very far. In fact, we are still in the stone age. The reason for this is that odor receptors are notoriously difficult to express outside their native environment,” he said.
In 1991, American researchers Linda Buck and Richard Axel solved the mystery of how the brain is able to recognize and distinguish one of among 10,000 different odors when identifying the odorant receptors. The discovery earned them the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2004.
According to the discovery, mammals have a series of sensory neurons in their noses, each equipped with a single chemical sensor called an odorant receptor that can detect a specific odor. In rats, as in humans, each neuron selects only one receptor. Collectively, the neurons select a uniform distribution of the receptors so that each of the 1,000 different receptors is represented by nearly 0.1% of the neurons.
“We are developing a tool to solve a 30-year-old problem in the field of Odoromics: the decodification of olfaction. We can translate on a chip and identify a signature for every single smell on the planet,” he said.
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