By Molly Daly

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — There’s currently no early screening test for ovarian cancer, which has the lowest survival rate of female reproductive cancers. But research at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in West Philadelphia that may lead to such a test has gotten a big boost in the form of a major grant.

Monell organic-analytical chemist Dr. George Preti says ovarian cancer is known as a hidden cancer because it’s seldom diagnosed in its early stages.

“About 80-85% of the cases are diagnosed at a very late stage,” he said, “say stage 3 or 4 or beyond.”

Preti says the three-year, $815,000 grant from the Kleberg Foundation will help further his team’s efforts to identify the odor signature of early stage ovarian cancer, which can cause chemical changes in the body.

“Most of the things you smell in everyday life — your cup of coffee, the steak grilling, a plate of French fries — they’re all a complex mixture of various odorants,” he said. “What we’re looking at is that complex mixture that is emanating off the plasma.”

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“We’re doing this analytically, with my instrumention – gas chromatography and mass spectrometry — as well as medical detection dogs, who confirm that the odor is present,” explained Preti. “We hope to translate this to a handheld electronic nose-type device.”

That device could be used for routine screening, like a mammogram or pap test.

Preti says although it may seem odd to use odor as a diagnostic tool, “The ancient physicians always used their sense of smell in their diagnostic protocols. They didn’t have much else. We’re sort of looking back to move forward in a disease where diagnosis has been difficult.”