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Philly’s Monell Chemical Senses Center: B.O. in vials, ‘the taste of pee’ and maybe a cancer detector

Kate Prigge spends her days in a University City lab surrounded by ear wax and vials of body odor. One small glass bottle smells like wet laundry that’s been in the washer for too long. Another smells like straight up armpits. And don’t open the fridge — it’s basically a mix between gone-bad Mexican food and a nursing home.

But Prigge, a post-doctoral fellow and a chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and her colleagues are doing important work. They’re studying to find out what type of information can be carried in earwax — so far she’s found that this includes ethnicity and chemicals indicating where you’ve been. But the team she’s on is also working with body odors, trying to find an early detection system for ovarian cancer. They’re well on their way.

Welcome to the Monell Center, a lab near 36th and Market that sits smack in between Drexel and Penn. Inside, 50 scientists and another 75 technical and administrative staff are working full-time in the only lab in the world dedicated exclusively to studying the basic science of smell and taste.

Researchers at the center work to better understand tastes and smells so that they could one day have real-world applications like establishing better nutrition for kids, decreasing stress through fragrances or literally sniffing out terrorists. Other things they’ve discovered are just for the sake of knowledge — like the fact that, as Business Insider noted, men’s testicles have taste receptors. Science!

The Monell Center was founded in 1968 by Dr. Morley Kare, whose dream was to build an interdisciplinary center to study smell and taste. Everyone was looking into sight and sound, long considered your “primary” senses, but no one was dedicated to the others. With funding from the Ambrose Monell Foundation, Kare got started in the late 1960s and partnered with Penn.

About 10 years later the center split away from Penn, said Monell Director of Science Communications Leslie Stein, but the lab still has a working relationship with the school. So it’s now an independent nonprofit with an annual budget of about $17 million. Most of that comes from competitive government grants, but some comes from corporations like Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola. These companies pay Monell for education and access to the scientists for consultation’s sake, but don’t pay to commission any studies.

Here’s a look at some of the badass research that’s going on in the center:

Detecting ovarian cancer

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(Above: Chemist Kate Prigge shows me a vial of condensed body odor that smells like the worst sweaty guy you’ve ever smelled.)

In the same space where Prigge is studying to find out what type of information can be carried in earwax, scientists are working to detect cancer. Ovarian cancer is one of the hardest to detect — oftentimes when it’s found in women, it’s too late. These researchers are looking to change that, and have possibly found a way to find ovarian cancer early in the process. So far, working with Penn Vet, they have three dogs that can reliably sense blood samples from women with ovarian cancer. Now, they’re working to pinpoint the chemical properties of what’s being emitted by the women with cancer so that, one day, doctors may be able to use a hand-held early detection device to scan a woman for ovarian cancer in a non-invasive way.

‘The taste of pee’

So after my mind was blown as the prospect of finding ways to detect cancer because of body odor, I visited the office of Michael Tordoff, who I interrupted while he was working on a presentation literally called “The Taste of P,” apparently as in Phosphorous. Mmmmm.

Tordoff explained: He’s currently working to pin down funding so he can continue to research nontraditional tastes. We know we have taste receptors for salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. But do we have “unconscious” tastes, too? Tordoff told me about studies that found humans exercise better after they “taste” tasteless solutions of starch, which suggests we could have unconscious tastes too. And some animals react favorably to the taste of calcium. Now, he’s trying to prove that humans have phosphorous taste receptors in addition to the five traditional tastes. He thinks they’re there. He just has to prove it.

Can smells make us less stressed out?

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(Above: The walls have whiteboards in case two scientists from different disciplines meet in the halls and start brainstorming.) 

We found Chris Maute in his office this week casually organizing body odors. “Isn’t that what everyone does at work?” he said. But in addition to that, it’s Maute’s job to stress you out. You just don’t know it yet.

Test subjects who go into the Monell Center for this study don’t know a lot about what they’re doing, but are greeted by Maute wearing a white lab coat. They’re told to prep a five-minute speech to secure their dream job that will be filmed. He gives them a few minutes to write down some notes, then he takes the notes, and gives each subject three minutes to do math out loud: 1,022 minus 13 over and over again. Now it’s speech time, and Maute’s going to critique their speech while they’re giving it. Telling them they’re deviating from their notes, or using their hands too much.

Sufficiently stressed? Then they blow a fragrance into the room. The researchers hypothesize certain smells can aid in stress reduction. But like many projects here at Monell, they’re working to prove it.

Sniffing out terrorists

You thought your fingerprints were unique to you but, surprise! You actually have a unique body odor that you involuntarily emit and can’t turn off, even with some strong deodorant. Scientists at Monell are trying to harness that unique body odor and find ways to detect it — it could one day prove as a much more reliable form of identification, because you can’t cover it up with gloves or anything else.

While researchers at Monell aren’t working on this specific application, they do receive federal Department of Defense dollars for their research because it could have implications in terrorism. Imagine one day a world where you walk into an airport and through a sensor that literally smells you. If you’re a terrorist, it can smell you. And if you’re a terrorist, better run.

Nutrition for kids

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You’ve probably heard the news that America is in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Researchers at Monell are trying to figure out why kids are attracted to what they are (sugar and salt) and how to improve on that. Nuala Bobowski works on human chemosensory testing to find out why, biologically, kids are more attracted to sugar and salt than adults are. Right now, the team she works on is looking at two things: 1. How do kids respond to artificial sweeteners like aspartame and stevia? 2. Can we ween kids away from salt by introducing them to, and keeping them on, a low-sodium diet?

Helping people who can’t smell at all

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More than six million Americans are living with anosmia, meaning they have no sense of smell at all, but because it’s not blindness or deafness, few scientists are studying the disease. There are no treatments, and there are no cures. Nicolle Murphy, a research technician at Monell, said the team she works on is in the process of identifying families from around the world where multiple members have congenital anosmia, meaning they’re born without the sense of smell.

Using social media, Murphy has found families from across the globe to test. In partnership with a lab in the UK, the researchers at Monell are looking at their genes and cross-referencing them with one another and basically looking for a needle in a haystack — trying to pinpoint the gene that carries anosmia. Once they find it, researchers can begin to work to fix it.

A test for you

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(Above: Stein shows me how to administer the jelly bean smells test.)

Most of your taste *actually* comes from smell. The coolest way to test this is with jelly beans. Grab a handful, plug your nose, and don’t look at which one you grabbed. Pop in a jelly bean and try to guess which flavor it is. Let me know how that goes…

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