What are the difficulties when it comes to the digitization of body odors?
Cuniberti: Until recently, the measurement technology was not sufficiently developed, which made things more challenging. Only in the past five years, nanomaterials research has made major progress in this area, and only as it pertains to the laboratory for the time being. In addition, smells are far more complex than colors, for example. When it comes to colors, red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors (RGB) from which all the other colors are derived. In contrast, a smell is based on multiple odor molecules that trigger a composite response in the nervous system via receptors in the nose, which our brain then decodes and analyzes for us. The binding of odor molecules initiates an electrical signal. Each smell affects the nervous system differently. Humans have 350 olfactory receptors, and the combined electrical signals allow us to distinguish among 10,000 or more smells. While we can collect the respective data on human senses, it won’t help us digitize body odors unless we have the right devices that can perform comparable analyses.
This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes into play and opens new research possibilities for us. For example, ten years from now, sensors and AI in mobile phones might enable us to analyze and interpret breath at the molecular level. It would facilitate personal diagnostics pertaining to potential health risks or permit dietary recommendations anytime, anywhere.
How can the digitization of body odors be advanced for health monitoring?
Cuniberti: We are honing two areas that jointly enable the digitization of body odors. This refers to the nanomaterials and the AI algorithms that increase the selectivity and sensitivity of our sensor technology when combined. Both must be studied concurrently since one area alone won’t be enough. The collected odor data must be read out. Nanomaterials bridge the gap between smell and data. We are developing a combined chip as a "digitized nose", which comprises various microelectronic components for signal acquisition and analysis.