Can an Agilent Instrument Emulate a Search-and-Rescue Dog?

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes are often followed by intense search-and-rescue (SAR) efforts.  Highly trained SAR dogs can locate people who may still be alive beneath debris.

Unfortunately, these animals require years of training, and can develop severe emotional and physical stress as a result of their work.  Could Agilent’s analytical instrumentation be used instead?

Scientists have begun trying to determine exactly which chemicals or scents SAR dogs detect in order to identify a target as a living human being.  Human breath alone is known to contain several hundred different volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Researchers in Greece used an Agilent GC/MS to analyze VOCs in expired air, blood and urine from 15 different individuals.  Acetone was the only compound found in all three matrices, though isoprene was also common to both expired air and blood.

Animals are also able to distinguish individual humans based on their odor or scent, though again scientists are not sure exactly how they do this.  Researchers in Florida used an Agilent GC and MSD to evaluate VOCs present in human sweat.  They found the presence of various types of compounds including organic fatty acids, ketones, esters and alcohols.  They found qualitative differences between males and females, and noted that individuals had different chemical ratio patterns.

Researchers with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also used an Agilent GC and MSD to determine VOCs in decomposing human remains.  Again they found similar patterns of acids, alcohols, ketones and other compounds shared across different regions of the body and types of tissues.  They plan to use this data to help train victim recovery (VR) canines, who are used recover buried homicide victims.

There is still much that is unknown about how SAR and VR dogs are able to identify and distinguish humans.  Until a few years ago, technology had not advanced enough to even consider these types of studies.  But as Agilent continues to improve the speed, sensitivity and portability of its instruments, researchers believe that analytical chemistry technology offers the best approach for improving the search and rescue process.

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