Philadelphia scientists reveal diagnostic powers of ear wax


    What’s on the end of your Q-tip could eventually become an important clue in diagnosing illness.


    Scientists at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center broke down people’s ear wax to its volatile compounds — the compounds that make up smell.


    They found that the composition changed depending on people’s ethnic backgrounds, and that ear wax offers important health clues.

    “Maybe it’s good for a few yucks right now, but we see it as a potentially good diagnostic medium” said organic chemist George Preti, lead researcher on this project. Preti says the body’s metabolism produces lots of small volatile compounds that end up in your ear wax – and can thus offer important clues.

    “Number one, if there is a marked presence of certain disease states that could be discerned from earwax volatile chemicals. Number two, we’re quite sure that it gives us a good indication of where you’ve been and perhaps what you’ve eaten,” he explained.

    Preti used his own ear wax for some of the research, and said what he ate changed the composition.

    “At lunchtime I often eat an orange, so what we saw is after lunch I had a higher presence of a compound limonene which is found in high abundance in the skin of oranges.”

    Preti says in the future, ear wax could be used like urine in diagnostics. To illustrate his point, he told a story about a whale, which was accidentally killed by a shiping vessel. Scientists removed a long ear wax plug from the mammal, and Preti says it contained a life history of where the animal had been. “It is like tree rings, they could tell when the whale swam in water that was polluted with mercury, and when testosterone levels were high because of mating season.”

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