IT started as a way of helping food companies ensure their products were safe to eat. Now the electronic nose could play a crucial role in fighting serious illness.

The team of North-East scientists behind the invention - which "sniffs" gases - are working on ways to help doctors treat patients and pharmaceutical companies find cures.

Their work began when Dr Zulfiqur Ali joined the University of Teesside's School of Science and Technology six years ago.

Based in the Centre for Applied Science, the team has been developing the electronic nose to test the shelf life of foods and detect contamination.

The machine detects gases emitted by the food, which can be analysed by computer and issue a warning when foods have "gone off" or may be harbouring disease.

Colleagues at Teesside and Sunderland universities have been working on the project and, although the technology has been around for some time, the team's achievement has been to put it all together in a single device.

Dr Ali estimates that the team is two years away from the electronic nose becoming commercially available to the food industry, but members are already working on developing it for use in medicine.

Dr Ali and his team believe that their electronic nose can similarly analyse body gases to detect conditions such as lung cancer and diabetes.

The team has received funding from the Science Research Investment Fund in collaboration with the University of Sunderland, to develop miniature sensor systems to test potential drug compounds.

Dr Ali said: "In the pharmaceutical sector, a company needs to synthesise between 6,000 and 8,000 compounds which are subsequently reduced to around 20 targets, of which just six or seven are tested in humans.

"This process currently takes between 11 and 13 years. There is a need to provide more effective solutions for speeding up the drug discovery process."

Dr Ali said the electronic nose could also be used in the environmental field, testing water quality and sewage. It may even be used for forensic detective work.

"We are just at the beginning of our research. We are working on its potential in a number of different aspects," he said.