Our bodies constantly release smells or odours as by-products of internal processes. These odours can change when someone is sick or has an infection. Understanding the composition of the odours is important for lots of things, such as developing new medical diagnostic tools, and for numerous other areas including forensics and perfume design. It’s also an important part of understanding the behaviour of blood-sucking insects like mosquitoes that transmit disease. Emer’s research is about deciphering the odours emitted from our skin to develop new sensors for odour-based disease diagnosis. She is also interested in understanding the influence these odours can have on the fragrances we apply to our skin.
Skin odour is produced in very small amounts and can vary widely with body location, diet, use of cosmetics, the type of microbes on the skin, and health (or disease) status. Emer collects skin odour by sticking a small wearable sampler on to the skin for a few minutes. The odour samples are complex mixtures of gases that must first be separated into their individual components and then identified using instrumental methods of analysis. Emer uses this approach to collect and study odour samples from cellular skin models, healthy individuals and from patients with various skin diseases. Her research is contributing to our understanding of how odour can change in diseases like melanoma, eczema and psoriasis and to developing new sensor technology for their diagnosis and management.