Your breath has a fingerprint
SUMMARY: Researchers are working to develop a breath detector that works to determine illnesses of a person.
Posted: April 5, 2013
Did you know that your bad breath has a fingerprint? Well, not literally. Researchers found that throughout the day, you have a unique "breathprint" that changes to reflect chemical reactions taking place in the body. While your bad breath can alert you to an ailment like canker sores, strep throat or tooth decay, doctors are working to create methods that use the breath to detect more serious diseases. A study published in PLOS ONE from researchers at ETH Zurich and the University Hospital Zurich found that a unique breathprint exists and can be used as a diagnostic tool in personalized medicine and to detect specific illnesses, like certain cancers. The scientists were led by Renato Zenobi who is a professor at the Laboratory for Organic Chemistry.
The 11-day study included 11 volunteers who were monitored at different points throughout the day with mass spectrometers. Participants exhaled into the device, which was developed by scientists based on a similar instrument that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. The exhaled breath that was examined was based on volatile and semi-volatile metabolites. Researchers found that each individual had a core pattern, making up his or her breath print.
"We did find some small variations during the day, but overall the individual pattern stays sufficiently constant to be useful for medical purposes," Pablo Martinez-Lozano Sinues, senior scientist in the research group, told Science Daily.
The device is not necessarily meant to detect bad breath, but instead it is intended to determine what is causing the bad breath. The scientists' next step is to recognize and characterize the patterns of diseases based on personal breathprints. The overall goal is to be able to detect ailments in the breath similar to how things are detected in the blood or urine. For example, if they are able to find a consistent pattern in individuals with lung cancer, scientists will be able to develop a tool that works to find those characteristics.
Although there is hope that further research will allow scientists to be able to detect a number of diseases and illnesses, they will first work to detect disorders of the upper respiratory system because they believe chances to uncover this information are better. Individuals in the medical industry have long been aware of the potential to detect diseases through the breath, but it is rarely done in professional medicine. Sinues told Science Daily that it is likely because methods that are currently used produce results slowly, and it is only possible to detect a few illnesses.
One of the greatest benefits of this test is that the breathprint will be available just seconds after the device is used. Currently, blood and urine samples don't produce results immediately. In addition, patients would not have to worry about invasive procedures or being pricked with a needle. Regularly surveying bad breath will be a step toward producing a higher survival rate for some diseases, as they could be detected much earlier on. It is also possible to manage the progression and/or side effects of an on-going medical therapy.
Production of mass spectrometers in a cheap manner is a future step that would allow doctors to have access to a database of bad breath causes. Although small, portable spectrometers currently exist, they are not very reliable to detect illnesses and once they are improved, you'll likely see them in clinics and doctor's offices. But for the instruments to be accepted in the medical field, the instrument must be far more sensitive and accurate.