Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a new type of breathalyzer that can read 17 different diseases — including lung cancer and multiple sclerosis — from a single breath, a recent study in ACS Nano reports.
The team tested the device by having 1,400 people — 813 who had a disease and 591 controls — from five different countries breathe into it. In all cases, the machine managed to identify each person’s disease with 86 percent accuracy.
Though the technology may seem far-fetched, it works because each disease has its own “breathprint” that can be read and analyzed. To do this, the machine scans for microscopic compounds known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within each exhale.
“These odor signatures are what enables us to identify the diseases using the technology that we developed,” explained study co-author Hossam Haick, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, according to Engadget.
The idea to test for VOCs is not new. Doctors used to smell bodily emissions to help with diagnoses as far back as 400 B.C. However, while smelling excrement and blood can be helpful, examining a person’s breath is cheaper, easier, and non-invasive, Live Science reports.
The breathalyzer is able to make readings because it contains two special nanolayers. The first is carbonless and has both modified gold nanoparticles and a network of nanotubes that work to provide electrical conductivity. The other layer — which has carbon — acts as a sensing layer that holds in any exhaled VOCs.
As a result, when someone breathes into the device, their VOCs interact with the organic sensing layer, which then changes the electrical resistance of the inorganic sensors. The team then measures those sensors to see which VOCs are present.
Each exhaled breath contains hundreds of known VOCs, but researchers only needed 13 to determine which of the 17 diseases the subjects had. For instance, the VOC nonanal is linked to numerous disorders — including ovarian cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and breast cancer — while the VOC isoprene is associated with chronic liver disease. However, as each VOC is linked to numerous conditions, the team needs multiple readings to make a proper diagnosis.
While the results of the study are promising, the breathalyzer is still a long way from market. Further testing and better accuracy will be needed before it can be put into regular use. Even so, the findings show that the machine has a lot of promise and could one day be used as an inexpensive way to both screen and diagnose patients around the world.
“[I]n the case of lung cancer we can increase the survival rate from 10 to 70 percent by early diagnosis,” Haick said. “It is available without the need for invasive and unpleasant procedures, it’s not dangerous, and you can sample it again and again if necessary.”