TCS Daily

Smells Like Victory

By Waldemar Ingdahl - October 15, 2004 12:00 AM

This year's Nobel Prize for medicine might not seem all that exciting: Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck shared it "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system".

But it's a prize rewarding good basic research in an area that is often neglected. Olfaction is one of the least studied senses (only taste is less understood), which is surprising given the great importance of smell to life quality, in animal behavior and in medicine. As any doctor can tell you, odor is one of the key diagnostic tools, but also one of the least endearing parts of the job. Impairment of smell contributes to malnourishment with the elderly and infirm and spoils life quality

But the research behind this particular Nobel Prize might actually contribute to quality of life on a far wider scale than many of the other recent prizes - although through market applications rather than any traditional medical use.

In fact, the chemical senses, taste and olfaction, are ripe with commercial promise. Until the early 1990s we did not see the crucial scientific breakthroughs. In 1991 the mammalian olfactory receptor genes were discovered in a study by Axel and Buck, ending the debate on the fundamental nature of olfactory coding and opening a new level in understanding the genetic molecular mechanisms behind smell.

Research has since shown us a huge family of some 1,500 receptors mediating olfaction and taste, that occupying almost 3 percent of the genome. These are largely shared across mammalians, although in us humans no more than 350 olfactory receptor genes are functional.

These late advances in the field are one of the main reasons it has not drawn the same level of venture investment and commercial innovation we have seen in genomics, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. All of these other fields have seen applications performed, inventions made and companies started on the basis of far more modest scientific breakthroughs.

Olfactory technology has several multibillion-euro markets in consumer products, the food industry, agriculture, pest control and medicine. Methods of controlling the perception of scents (either to remove odors or amplify them) can be very profitable.

We can see this in scented consumer products (soaps, laundry products, food, beverages, perfumes etc.), enhancing or eliminating scent. Odors can be used as a natural insect repellent, since insects' behavior is strongly influenced by the smell of things. Some think it is possible to use insects as scent detectors, possibly supplanting dogs for bomb or land mine detection.

But artificial noses may be even more useful. The California Institute of Technology jointly developed a method for a machine to "smell" and send the olfactory signals back to a computer. Using the lessons from biology researchers are constructing everything from digital wine tasters to "artificial moth" chemosensory Unmanned Aerial Vehicles sniffing out explosives, pollution or controlling food quality.

In the future cheap devices for detecting pathogens, poisons and food quality will likely be ubiquitous or integrated in packaging.

There is a danger, though, that the Nobel Prize might raise the hopes too soon for this field of study. Advances have been made but we still have a way to go to reach these commercial applications.

One warning sign is how the field of olfactory sciences was treated not so long ago by the EU. It is often difficult from a centralized point-of-view to see how far a field has developed, since researchers, when asked by bureaucrats, answer that the field is approaching applications but more funds are necessary. This creates an illusion that successful basic science (such as in this case) is closer to commercial applications than is actually the case.

This is clear in regard to artificial noses. We have promising prototypes, but the EU administration thought it better to create networks of excellence (such as GOSPEL) instead of continuing the efforts on basic research. The administrators were under the impression that the field was much more applied, on the basis of the information they had received, and there should be a commercial application ready. Such are the dangers of centrally planned research.

Fragrances and flavors are pervasive in daily life, and consumers make lifestyle choices in food, personal hygiene, household products and fashion based on them. What started as a medical research question producing unexpected spin-offs in other fields turns out to promote overall health. Not through the hospital, but a healthier and more pleasant environment.

Modulating odor and taste perception may not be the usual Nobel Prize in medicine that we would expect, but considering the size of the market and the potential impact on nutrition, health and well-being, it is certainly a useful application of neuroscience. If we have the patience to put this Nobel Prize in its rightful context of being good basic research, that is.


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