Scents Can Slow Cancer, Inflammation, Brain Diseases

A study found that inhaling a scent can delay the development of cancer, inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. Though it sounds like science fiction, inhalable preventative medication may be coming closer to reality.

The research began with fruit flies, moved into mice and ended with human cells. Researchers found that exposing them to a compound released by yeast altered their genetic activity, even though they weren’t eating it. The compound, called diacetyl, is added to foods and beverages and can occur naturally.

Diacetyl has a pleasant scent. It is one of the world’s most popular flavor additives. It has a buttery taste and is made naturally from fermentation. It’s found in beer and wine. But, the fact that it was beneficially altering the human cells was surprising. The human cells they were using in the study couldn’t smell!

[It] came as a complete surprise,” said study author Anandasankar Ray, a molecular, cell and systems biology professor at the Univ. of California-Riverside. “These molecules are able to get to the cell nucleus through the cell membrane.”

Diacetyl inhibited volatiles that are utilized in cancer treatments and could have uses to help inflammation and neurodegeneration. This is the first study to show that odor molecules aren’t just inhaled. They are absorbed into the skin, nose, lungs and possibly brain via the bloodstream. That can alter gene expression. While that is beneficial when it comes to diacetyl, we are exposed to scents daily.  

This research opens the door for using odorants as “tiny drugs.” It changes the meaning of aroma therapy!

While this study shows that diacetyl helped fruit flies, mice and human cells, you shouldn’t try inhaling large amounts of it. Diacetyl isn’t safe in high amounts. It has been linked to popcorn lung — a condition that scars organs. The researchers say that the work with diacetyl shows that cells absorb scents, but it might not be the best candidate for treatments.

We are already working on identifying other volatiles that lead to changes in gene expression,” said Prof. Ray.

The idea of medications free of injections or pills could be a big step forward. Many people avoid taking important medications because they are afraid of needles, they have problems swallowing or it’s hard to fit into their routine. If they can find a way to make this system fast, affordable and effective, it could be a life-changing advancement.  

Banner image: Min An via Pexels

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