Scientists who have tested the noses envision a time in the not-too-distant future when a patient with, say, the sniffles can go to the doctor, breathe into an electronic nose, and know in a matter of minutes whether he or she has a sinus infection and needs antibiotics.
But Walt says there is still a long way to go before this scenario becomes a reality. "I've yet to be convinced,'' he says, "that there's [now] a working version of an artificial nose out there that can consistently do this."
Though far from perfect, Hanson says, the current technology can be used as a screening tool to flag patients who should undergo more advanced testing.
A number of companies manufacture electronic noses that detect explosives and other dangerous compounds, but the technology is not yet widely used in medicine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an electronic nose that can detect urinary tract infections, but has yet to approve one for breath analysis or other medical uses.
"It's a field that's simmering," Hanson says. "It's just waiting for somebody with deep pockets to come up with the money and focused effort to develop these noses commercially."