London, August 30 : "E Nose", a device developed by NASA to detect low-level leaks of ammonia in shuttles, may soon guide surgeons as they operate on cancer patients.
According to a report in New Scientist, the E Nose is based on polymer films whose electrical conductivity varies as they encounter different substances.
Now, its creators believe that it could act as a highly sensitive detector of the characteristic compounds produced by cancer cells.
Such a device could be invaluable for surgeons operating on areas where spotting tumour tissue is particularly tricky.
Surgeons currently rely on visual inspection to locate cancerous tissue, referring back to scans taken before surgery.
But brain tissue, for example, is hard to distinguish from cancer, and it also changes shape when the skull is opened, so the scans don't match what the surgeon sees.
That makes it difficult to cut out all the cancerous tissue while avoiding damage to healthy areas.
According to Babak Kateb of City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, the E Nose has correctly diagnosed lung cancer and diabetes in patients who have breathed into it.
He and his colleagues believe that the device could be linked to other brain imaging and mapping devices to create a real-time high-resolution image of the brain that pinpoints cancer hotspots.