Scientists Use AI to Uncover that "Smell" Genes Go beyond the Nose

It turns out our "smell" genes also play a role in detecting cancer.
Fabienne Lang

When you smell a sweet flower or the salty sea breeze you may not realize that your body is activating around 400 "smell-sensing" genes to enable you to decipher each different smell. 

What's even more fascinating about these "smell" genes is that scientists have recently uncovered that they play a much larger role than previously believed, far beyond just the nose.

These genes have been found to be expressed in other parts of the body, and a recent study published in Molecular Systems Biology has found that patients with colon cancer cells that show the "expression" of these smell genes are more likely to have worse outcomes.

What is the "expression" of a gene?

The expression of a gene is when information that's stored in our DNA is translated into instructions for making molecules and proteins. This gene expression is able to switch on and off to control when and how many proteins are made. When there is the expression of smell-sensing genes that means that the instructions for those particular genes are in use. 

When looking at cancer, researchers focus a lot of attention on the organization of cells in body tissue. As lead author of the study and Sir Henry Wellcome Research Fellow at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Heba Sailem explained "Cancer is often characterized with the loss of tissue structure which can be driven by certain gene alterations or stresses. It is crucial to understand which genes play a role in this process to be able to develop therapies that target cancer development."


In this instance, Dr. Sailem and her team used multiple layers of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect changes in cell appearance and organization. Through their observations, the researchers discovered that smell-sensing genes are strongly linked with how cells spread and align among themselves. 

Minimizing the expression of smell-sensing genes can inhibit cells from spreading. Dr. Sailem noted "It is like activating a sixth sense that allows cancer cells to smell their way outside the toxic tumour environment which can result in spreading cancer to other parts of the body and make things worse for the patient."

Using AI enabled the team to speed up the process, as Dr. Sailem noted "Using the developed AI system, we can now learn much more from these experiments and accelerate the identification of genes that alter the structure of tissues in cancer."

This research could open avenues in identifying genes' roles in different cancer types, which ultimately assists in the development of cancer research and therapy. 

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