Over $3 Million to Digitize Smell

a computer chip balanced on a person's finger
"We can translate the biology of the nose onto a chip to ultimately identify a signature for every type of smell," says Professor Paul Feinstein. 

Back in the late 1980s, when Professor Paul Feinstein (GC/Hunter; Biochemistry, Biology, Psychology/Biological Sciences)  got his first job in an olfaction laboratory — he worked as a research assistant at a lab at Johns Hopkins — almost nothing was known about the human sense of smell.
A few years later, researchers made the first identification of odor receptors, which convert the chemical signatures in vapor to an electrical signal that the brain can understand. Yet despite three decades of further research, scientists are still trying to match specific odors with specific receptors.
In comparison to the systems that allow for our senses of sight, the biology of the olfaction system is particularly complex, Feinstein explains. And although researchers can artificially create receptors for chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin in a lab, they have not yet found efficient ways to make — and therefore experiment with — odor receptors.
To solve this problem, Feinstein devised a new approach: one that adapts the olfactory system of mice that will ultimately produce the 400 odor receptors that humans are believed to possess. (Dogs, which have a far better sense of smell, are estimated to have around 800.) Next, he intends to adapt these sensors with a computer chip and use the resulting information to digitize the odor code. “Essentially, we plan to create a digital detection platform for every odor on the planet,” he says. “By harnessing what evolution gave us, we can translate the biology of the nose onto a chip to ultimately identify a signature for every type of smell.”
Two years ago, Feinstein, along with Research Associate Charlotte D’Hulst, co-founded MouSensor, Inc. to commercialize their technology. This fall, their early-stage biotech startup received $3.3 million in seed funding from investors — a sign of the potential interest their technology might attract from the multibillion industry centered on developing odors for products such as food, perfume, a vast array of consumer goods, and bespoke scents for retailers and hotels.

Professor Paul Feinstein at the computer
Professor Paul Feinstein

A digital detection platform for odors would have applications beyond the consumer world, Feinstein notes. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is also partnering with MouSensor, Inc., driven by reports that people with an acute sense of smell can detect Parkinson’s even before a patient manifests visible symptoms. “There are many diseases associated with odors, like tuberculosis and diabetes,” Feinstein says. “We began to realize that our technology could end up being a disease diagnostic platform as well.”
It is possible that odors linked to diseases were once a source of valuable information, Feinstein says. “Nowadays, in our culture, we devalue that information because we heavily use our eyes and ears,” he says. “Intellectually, people don’t value the sense of smell,” even though, as he points out, what we call the “taste” of food wouldn’t exist without it. Smell is also the sense closest linked to memory and plays a critical role in our emotions. “If you lose your sense of smell, it affects your daily life dramatically,” Feinstein says. “It’s brutal to live without it.”

Submitted on: NOV 14, 2018

Category: Biochemistry | Biology | Faculty | General GC News | Psychology