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Researchers say earwax odor can be diagnostic tool

Tue., Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

PHILADELPHIA – And now, from the department of vital information that it never occurred to you to think about, we bring you earwax odor.

Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center report that compared to whites, the earwax of east Asian people contains significantly lower amounts of odor-causing substances called volatile organic compounds.

George Preti, an organic chemist at the research institute, said earwax odor already can be used as a quick diagnostic tool for certain rare metabolic diseases. And he is optimistic that the earwax of a cancer patient might also contain some telltale fragrance, which could be detected by trained dogs.

Scientists have known for decades that the earwax of east Asians is dry and whitish, whereas that of others is moist and yellowish-brown.

More recently, researchers have traced this difference to a genetic mutation, and they have found that the very same mutation causes east Asians to have much less underarm odor.

So Preti wondered: If the appearance of earwax was linked to underarm odor, what about the odor of the earwax itself?

Results were published online in the Journal of Chromatography B.

The researchers sampled earwax, also called cerumen, from 16 study participants, eight of them east Asian and eight Caucasian. Analysis revealed higher amounts of seven volatile organics in the Caucasian earwax.

Just one compound turned up in higher amounts in the Asians – a chemical that is contained in chile peppers, leading Preti to surmise that there might be a connection between earwax and diet.

Preti and two other judges also put earwax to the sniff test, finding the odors from the two ethnic groups to be fairly similar.


 

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