A Sense of Hope: The Monell Anosmia Project
The Monell Center recently announced A Sense of Hope: The Monell Anosmia Project, a research and advocacy program focused on anosmia, loss of the sense of smell. The research goal is to identify the biological causes of smell loss in order to develop potential treatment approaches for this under-recognized condition.
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately one to two percent of the American population reports a complete loss of the sense of smell. However, as no routine assessment of smell function exists, the incidence may be considerably higher.
Although over six million Americans likely are affected by this invisible disability, scientists and physicians have little understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms causing a loss of smell.
Anosmia can occur by several different processes, including
- physical blockage within the nose due to inflammation or polyps
- viral damage to the smell receptors
- head trauma
- toxin exposure
- neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
- congenital or inborn causes
Each type of anosmia has distinct implications concerning prognosis and treatment. At the present time, no validated treatment options are available for most types of anosmia.
The Center’s past research on the mechanisms of olfaction indirectly increased understanding of varied factors related to smell loss. Now, several new projects represent a focused effort to address the condition:
- Olfactory stem cell regeneration: Taking advantage of the unique ability of the olfactory receptor cells to regenerate across the lifetime, this project focuses on identifying basic mechanisms of human olfactory stem cell regeneration. The goal is to grow mature functional olfactory receptor cells from olfactory stem cells obtained from healthy humans. Once this is achieved, the next phase will involve developing transplantation techniques that potentially could lead to new treatment options.
- Identification of candidate causal genes for inherited anosmia: This research seeks to learn more about the genes underlying anosmia. By sequencing DNA from relatives with inherited anosmia and comparing it to DNA from other relatives who are not anosmic, the researchers hope to identify genes related to this condition. As there are currently no viable treatments for congenital anosmia, the discovery of causal genes may contribute to the development of gene therapies targeted towards this form of anosmia.
- Evaluation of nasal airflow obstruction as a cause of smell loss: Chronic sinus infections among the most common medical conditions in the US often are associated with smell loss. Monell researchers utilize advanced airflow modeling techniques to identify how inflammation of nasal and sinus membranes obstructs the passage of odorant molecules to odor receptors high inside the nose. These techniques may someday be used to identify appropriate candidates for surgical reversal of this type of anosmia.
As the leading research center devoted to understanding the mechanisms of smell, the Monell Center is well-positioned to make a difference to the millions of people who live in a world without smell.