Unlocking a new era in health care, Helena Nikonole’s & Lucy Ojomoko’s research delves into the world of the skin microbiome, pioneering disease detection through olfactory communication. By engineering microbiome bacteria to emit distinct scents in response to disease indicators, this innovative approach transforms our body’s ecosystem into a diagnostic tool. Embracing the principles of bio-semiotics, Nikonole’s & Ojomoko’s work redefines human sensory capabilities and signals a paradigm shift in medical diagnostics.

Which wall does your research break?

Our research, Quorum Sensing: Skin Flora Signal System, dismantles the wall of conventional disease diagnostics and furthers our comprehension and application of the human microbiome. Traditional diagnostic approaches largely rely on clinical signs and laboratory tests, which often necessitate professional medical assistance, and can be invasive, time-consuming, and costly. Our project is designed to overcome these barriers by exploring the skin microbiome for potential disease detection and even prevention. Through genetically modifying skin microbiome bacteria to emit particular odors in response to disease indicators, our research aims to replace complex, invasive medical tests with a straightforward, non-invasive method of self-diagnosis. It essentially transforms the microbiome into a diagnostic organ that communicates with us via olfactory signals – familiar and easily identifiable. The societal implications of our research are significant. By facilitating accessible, immediate disease detection, potentially even before symptoms manifest, it could revolutionize medical diagnostics and significantly enhance patient outcomes. However, in terms of bio-semiotics, this genetically modified skin microbiome can be seen as a new sensing organ with a specific ability to redefine the existing signal system (smells) and to use the familiar sensation (olfactory) to encode and decode the information on a molecular level.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

Our inspiration to embark on the Quorum Sensing: Skin Flora Signal System project was born out of the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first wave, we were fascinated by reports of dogs being able to detect COVID-19 in humans through smell. This intriguing inter-species communication highlighted the underutilized potential of olfaction as a disease detection mechanism. Moreover, we were aware that some individuals demonstrated an uncanny ability to detect diseases like cancer or Parkinson’s merely through their sense of smell. We realized that these scenarios hinted at an untapped realm of human sensory capabilities that could potentially be enhanced through scientific intervention. So, we embarked on the journey of marrying the two concepts – the human microbiome’s uncharted capabilities and the underutilized sense of smell for disease detection. We imagined a world where we could engineer human skin microbiome bacteria to act as biosensors, identifying disease molecules and producing specific, recognizable smells in response. This inspiration led us to the development of our project, striving to provide an innovative, accessible, and natural method for disease detection and possibly prevention.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

The potential impact of our work is vast. If successful, we could be on the brink of a major shift in how we approach disease diagnosis and prevention, making it more accessible, efficient, and user-friendly. This research could also be the starting point for a new era of bio-semiotic applications, ushering in innovative ways to decode and manipulate biological signals.

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