Texas Tech University

That Smells! How Smelly Scents May Lead to Medical Innovation

TTU Office of Communications & Marketing

April 2, 2021

Five medical students and two engineering experts have developed a kit of medically relevant scents to be incorporated into educational healthcare simulations.

As five second-year medical students, Anu Satheeshkumar, Christopher Le, Elleana Majdinasab, Malvika Ramesh and En-Dien Liao, were enjoying dinner and studying their lecture notes on the symptoms of phenylketonuria, the question of what a “mousy” odor smelled like was posed to the group. While the students thought on this, they began to think of other odors they were taught in classes but had never smelled before.

“We thought it would be a really cool idea if we could somehow incorporate smells into our learning, said Liao, the project lead. “This is when we first developed the initial idea for “Smellpoof” – a play on “poof” of smell – to be a kit containing the collection of medically relevant scents that can be incorporated into educational healthcare simulations for a more immersive experience.”

Instead of pleasant, perfume-like fragrances, Smellpoof is designed to replicate pungent odors that smell like diseases. The first proposed project is a simple spray bottle of smells to be used in a classroom setting. In the future, the team plans to incorporate dispensable smells in medical virtual reality.

“As medical students, we recognize and acknowledge that the sense of smell is vastly underutilized and neglected throughout our medical training,” said Majdinasab, the entrepreneurial lead. “Many diseases emit strong, pathognomonic odors that clinicians can recognize and use as reliable clues toward reaching correct diagnoses. These include bacterial vaginosis, diabetic ketoacidosis, Clostridium difficile, among so many others. Our professors and textbooks make it a point to characterize these odors with terms such as ‘musty' or ‘mousy.' However, us students actually never get the opportunity to experience these odors until we reach the clinical setting, if we're lucky - or until it is too late.”

In the clinical setting, medical students can only learn about odors through descriptions. It typically takes several patient encounters for smell patterns to be recognized, causing a gap in the educational curriculum for medical, nursing and dental students.

The Smellpoof project team has had to master the art of perseverance and hustle while developing a start-up during the pandemic.

“We have had a lot of struggles in the age of COVID-19 with trying to plan and implement a startup completely virtually,” said Satheeshkumar, the communications lead. “Zoom, emails, GroupMe and texts were our main forms of communication and for the past 6 months we have rotated among all of these platforms to brainstorm, network and research for Smellpoof. Finding regular times weekly (and sometimes daily) to get our entire group to meet up, having meetings run overtime and having to adjust our medical school/grad school schedules around it and dividing up our work equally have all been challenges that we had to contend with. In fact, we were all tickled to see each other in person for the first time in over a year during a mandatory in-person event just the other week.”

“We started off with just an idea that has grown into a potential business model,” said Liao. From creating our own logo to customer discovery to understanding the manufacturing process, we've learned so much about business. We want to thank all the people along the way who have helped us. The team with VxMED have been fantastic mentors. Dr. Ganapathy, Dr. Babb, and Dr. Mehcref have graciously supported us with the development of smells. And of course, the Sling Health program and the Innovation Hub for helping us grow from a simple concept.”