Dr. Bruce Kimball, a research chemist with the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Wildlife Research Center stationed at the Monell Chemical Senses Center reported success in training mice to smell avian influenza in the feces of birds and humans in the Oct. 16, 2013, edition of the journal Public Library of Science.
The development is a breakthrough that speeds up the process of identifying birds that are infected with avian influenza. Detection of avian flu infection at present requires the capture of suspected infected birds, collection of lab samples, and laboratory culture of the avian flu virus.
Kimball trained mice to smell the difference in the odor of infected bird feces and uninfected bird feces. Infection by the avian flu virus produces chemical changes in the gastrointestinal track that are detectable as a change in the smell of bird feces. The chemical change may be a protective measure that warns other birds to stay away from infected birds.
Kimball also was able to train mice to smell avian flu in the feces of people. The development of symptoms of avian flu can take several days or even weeks to become noticeable. The change in the odor of feces is rapid and provides an early detection method and the possibility of early treatment and the prevention of death from avian flu outbreaks.
The exact chemical pathway that produces the fecal odor change is unknown at present.