Organic chemist changes lives, body smell

By Tom Avril MCT

PHILADELPHIA – George Preti didn’t go to medical school.

He is a Ph.D. organic chemist, his lab stocked with gas chromatography equipment and test tubes. He has data to analyze and three post-docs to supervise, and he faces that familiar problem of the modern scientist: Grant money is running low.

Yet once every week or two, he squeezes in time for a money-losing venture. For a nominal fee, he meets with people who have come to his Philadelphia lab from all over the world, typically after waiting more than a year. They are desperate for help with the most socially awkward of problems: extreme body odor.

Preti is the accidental doctor, and he has more patients than he knows what to do with.

“He is unique,” says Paul Fennessey, a pharmacology professor at the University of Colorado who tests urine samples from Preti’s patients.

This isn’t the kind of aroma that arises from not taking a shower. Those who visit Preti, at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, suffer from a rare metabolic disorder that can make them smell like decaying fish or garbage.

The disorder, called trimethylaminuria, has been found in fewer than 700 people worldwide. It can be so debilitating that some patients, shunned by society and undiagnosed by their regular doctors, become suicidal. Yet after some tests at Monell and a few changes in their diet, many eventually are able to control the symptoms and live a normal life.

The lab work and staff time cost at least $3,000, but Preti charges just $300. Monell, founded in 1968 near the University of Pennsylvania campus, is a research center and is not set up to deal with health insurance.

“If I billed like a lawyer, it would be substantial,” Preti quips.

Preti, 62, feigns annoyance with the hundreds of calls that came in last year after he discussed the disease on network television. He claims that if he could get a medical doctor to take over his “practice,” he gladly would.

But beneath a crusty Brooklyn-bred exterior, it is clear the scientist is devoted to his patients. When a Massachusetts woman came to see him last month, anxious that she was offending people with bad breath, he spoke to her with sensitivity.

Like some who find their way to the lab, she did not appear to have the metabolic disorder. Preti gives such patients what advice he can – recommending regular tongue-brushing or scraping, for example.

He ran some tests and took a few whiffs as the woman exhaled, then gently reassured her that the problem was minimal. After she left, he sniffed an absorbent pad that she had removed from her underarm. (It was normal.)

Says Preti’s pal Fennessey: “This is really a labor of love.”