Exhale for Your Health

Disease detecting breathalyzer is in development

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Breathalyzers may be associated with cop shows but the device could be an important tool for the health of patients. A simple exhalation could help patients detect diseases early.

The new disease detecting breathalyze, is currently being developed by Perena Gouma, PhD, Director of the Center for Nanomaterials and Sensor Development for Stony Brook University, along with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

dailyRx had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Gouma about the device and how it could detect specific biomarkers, which can indicate if a disease is present.

In the future, the device could be purchased easily over the counter, giving an individual a tool that can help detect disease early.

A Different Kind of Breathalyzer

The breathalyzer we are familiar with measures breath alcohol concentration (BAC), the hand-held device that can detect ethanol, the type of alcohol found in liquor or beer, in the lungs. By breathing into the breathalyzer, the ethanol causes a chemical reaction that creates an electrical current.

The amount of generated electricity is calculated and displayed as an accurate estimate of your actual blood alcohol level.

This works well for police, but the same principle could be used for doctors and patients to help detect diseases. Much like how a breathalyzer can detect ethanol, the device can be used to detect other chemicals that could be a sign of a particular disease.

Speaking to Dr. Gouma, the idea for a disease breathalyzer began with her work on the BAC we are all familiar with. According to Dr. Gouma, “I had come across an inexpensive BAC that used non-selective semiconducting sensors and at the time I was funded by the NSF to create electronic noses using my selective chemosensors to detect airway diseases in breath, so it clicked.”

A chemosensor can detect a specific chemical in the environment and has a wide range of uses from medical to military. Doctors can use chemosensors to detect glucose in the blood for diabetics while other chemosensors can detect gases in the air.

With this knowledge, Dr. Gouma had her inspiration for a new device that could be useful to the general population, “I could make a single breath diagnostic device,” notes Dr. Gouma, “using one selective chemosensor at a time detecting a specific biomarker that signals one specific disease or allows the monitoring of a metabolic malfunction.”

Biomarkers on Your Breath

Before the disease-detecting breathalyzer could be developed, there needed to be actual biomarkers to detect via exhalation. Recent research has identified biomarkers for diabetes, asthma and when to stop home-based hemodialysis.

Recent research has identified exhaled levels of acetone as a way to detect diabetes. A hand-held device that can monitor diabetes by detecting exhaled acetone levels is currently being developed. Nitric oxide levels are elevated in the breath of children with asthma. Nitric oxide levels are also used to monitor pulmonary infections. Additionally, breath levels of ammonia could be used for kidney failure patients to determine when to stop home-based hemodialysis.

Using these known biomarkers, Dr. Gouma is developing one device that can detect multiple diseases. The breathalyzer will not only be available over the counter but will also be affordable, with a price range of around $20 to $50.

Coming up with a disease-detecting breathalyzer may seem like an easy task, but there is some cutting edge technology that Dr. Gouma and her team are using to create such a device. In order to detect multiple biomarkers, individual crystal nanowires are needed that are tailored to detect a specific chemical.

Cutting Edge Technology That's Not Expensive

Crystal nanowires are created by having a liquid exposed to an electrical field. The liquid then crystallizes and scientists can weave wires out of the crystallized liquid. Dr. Gouma plans on coating the various wires with metal and oxygen atoms than can collect specific chemical compounds.

The disease-detecting breathalyzer can have multiple strands of these crystal nanowires connected to a sensor which can detect the amount of a given compound. For example, one nanowire can be tailored to collect acetone and the sensor can determine if the levels of acetone are significant enough to determine a possible detection for diabetes.

While this technology may seem to be expensive, it is actually very cheap. Thousands of feet of crystal nanowire can be created from just one syringe. The sensors, according to Dr. Gouma are “resistive chemosensors based on polymorphic metal oxides; these are stable and inexpensive materials and the device may work up to a year at a cost of $20 to $50.

Taking Control of Your Health

The disease-detecting breathalyzer will not replace a doctor but can be a way for patients to take control of their health. “This device is meant particularly for the individual to purchase over the counter and use it as a non-invasive diagnostic tool,” notes Dr. Gouma.

The breathalyzer can be easy easy to use and efficient. Dr. Gouma envisions numerous ways to use the device including “no more blood drawing for monitoring diabetes, no continuous use of medication to prevent asthma attacks,” according to Dr. Gouma, “just a single exhale to determine the end-point in home hemodialysis.”

A person can use the breathalyzer as a way to detect diseases early with a positive detection being verified by doctors. In the near future, the power to detect diseases early may be in the palm of your hand. 

Review Date: 
May 8, 2012