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Sandalwood Odor Could Be a Treatment for Leukemia

Olfactory receptors are not limited to your nose. You have them all over your body, including your blood. Now, synthetic sandalwood has been shown to promote cell death in cancer cells for patients with a certain kind of leukemia. This could open the door for a whole new kind of treatment.

Researchers from Essen University Hospital and Ruhr-Universität Bochum have found olfactory receptors in white blood cells, according to a paper published today in Cell Death Discovery. This is not as strange as it might seem. Although we first discovered olfactory receptors in the nose, many different parts of our bodies make use of chemical receptors. Scientists have discovered “olfactory receptors” in the liver, “taste buds” in the colon, and most recently, the receptor OR2AT4 in the white blood cells of patients suffering from acute myeloid leukemia.

Sandalore is a synthetic sandalwood scent that is used to replace actual sandalwood oil in many skin creams and perfumes. It’s a chemical the binds to the receptor and causes a chemical reaction in the cell. In this case, it provoked an influx of the calcium ion Ca2+ into the cell. The scientists noticed that this influx triggered a higher rate of cell death.
They also found that it caused phosphorylation. Phosphorylation adds a phosphoryl group, PO32−, to an enzyme. Adding or subtracting these groups turns enzymes on and off. Enzymes speed up functions in a cell, and in this case, phosphorylation decreases the rate at which cells proliferate.

This is important, because in myeloid leukemia patients cells in the spinal cord called myeloblasts create too many immature white blood cells. A medication that depresses the creation of these cells—and causes them to die earlier—could be a life-saving treatment. According to Professor Hans Hatt, one of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum scientists, “Acute myeloid leukemia in particular is a disease for which specific medication is not, as yet, available.”

This treatment might only be the first. The researchers discovered seven different odor receptors in the cells, and they’re studying them to see if they can also be used to manipulate blood cells and treat cancer through odorants. Using olfactory receptors to shut down and kill off cancer cells might be a whole new way of treating the disease.