This breathalyzer reveals signs of disease (w/ Video)

May 08, 2012 By Miles O' Brien and Jon Baime

(Phys.org) -- This invention could give new meaning to the term "bad breath!" It's the Single Breath Disease Diagnostics Breathalyzer, and when you blow into it, you get tested for a biomarker—a sign of disease. As amazing as that sounds, the process is actually very simple thanks to ceramics nanotechnology. All it takes is a single exhale.

You blow into a small valve attached to a box that is about half the size of your typical shoebox and weighs less than one pound. Once you blow into it, the lights on top of the box will give you an instant readout. A green light means you pass (and your is not indicative of an underlying disease; perhaps it’s just a result of the raw onions you ingested recently); however, a red light means you might need to take a trip to the doctor’s office to check if something more serious is an issue.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Professor Perena Gouma and her team at Stony Brook University in New York developed a sensor chip that you might say is the "brain" of the . It's coated with tiny nanowires that look like microscopic spaghetti and are able to detect minute amounts of chemical compounds in the breath. "These nanowires enable the sensor to detect just a few molecules of the disease marker gas in a 'sea' of billions of molecules of other compounds that the breath consists of," Gouma explains. This is what nanotechnology is all about.

You can't buy this in the stores just yet--individual tests such as an acetone-detecting breathalyzer for monitoring diabetes and an ammonia-detecting breathalyzer to determine when to end a home-based hemodialysis treatment--are still being evaluated clinically. However, researchers envision developing the technology such that a number of these tests can be performed with a single device. Within a couple of years, you might be able to self-detect a whole range of diseases and disorders, including lung cancer, by just exhaling into a handheld breathalyzer.

Handheld breath tests to estimate blood alcohol content and nitric oxide detectors used in hospitals to monitor pulmonary infections have been around for a while, but there is no consumer-based technology like this currently available. The research team envisions the cost of the final product being under $20, just one of many reasons Gouma thinks the Single Breath Disease Diagnostics Breathalyzer has the potential to empower individuals to take care of their own health like never before. "People can get something over the counter and it's going to be a first response or first detection type of device. This is really a nanomedicine application that is affordable because it is based on inexpensive ceramic materials that can be mass produced at low cost," she notes.

The manufacturing process that creates the single crystal nanowires is called "electrospinning." It starts with a liquid compound being shot from a syringe into an electrical field. The electric field crystallizes the inserted liquid into a tiny thread or "wire" that collects onto an aluminum backing. Gouma says enough nanowire can be produced in one syringe to stretch from her lab in Stony Brook, N.Y. to the moon and still be a single grain (monocrystal).

"There can be different types of nanowires, each with a tailored arrangement of metal and oxygen atoms along their configuration, so as to capture a particular compound," explains Gouma. "For example, some nanowires might be able to capture ammonia molecules, while others capture just acetone and others just the nitric oxide. Each of these biomarkers signal a specific disease or metabolic malfunction so a distinct diagnostic breathalyzer can be designed."

"This concept could not have been realized without a fundamental understanding of the material used to create the miniaturized gas detectors," said Janice Hicks, a deputy division director in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at NSF. "The research transcends traditional scientific and engineering disciplines and may lead to new applications or diagnostics."

Gouma also says the nanowires can be rigged to detect infectious viruses and microbes like Salmonella, E. coli or even anthrax. "There will be so many other applications we haven't envisioned. It's very exciting; it's a whole new world," she says.

Explore further: Dolphin 'breathalyzer' could help diagnose animal and ocean health

Related Stories

New sensor nanotechnology simplifies disease detection

Oct 04, 2010

Researchers at Stony Brook University have developed a new sensor nanotechnology that could revolutionize personalized medicine by making it possible to instantly detect and monitor disease by simply exhaling ...

Breathalyzers coming to a doctor near you?

Jan 03, 2011

Nobody driving an automobile wants to come face-to-face with a breathalyzer. But if research now under way proves out, patients visiting their doctors will welcome the devices.

New Nano-Sensor Can Detect Asthma Symptoms

Aug 23, 2007

A sensor developed at the University of Pittsburgh could strip the element of surprise from some asthma attacks by detecting one before its onset. Fitted in a hand-held device, the tiny sensor provides people who have asthma ...

Cancer on the breath? The nose knows

May 16, 2011

A breath test for "sniffing out" cancer in a person's breath is a step closer to reality, according to a study recently published in the British Journal of Cancer. The study results show that the device develo ...

Recommended for you

Towards controlled dislocations

21 hours ago

Crystallographic defects or irregularities (known as dislocations) are often found within crystalline materials. Two main types of dislocation exist: edge and screw type. However, dislocations found in real ...

Chemists tackle battery overcharge problem

Oct 17, 2014

Research from the University of Kentucky Department of Chemistry will help batteries resist overcharging, improving the safety of electronics from cell phones to airplanes.

Surface properties command attention

Oct 17, 2014

Whether working on preventing corrosion for undersea oil fields and nuclear power plants, or for producing electricity from fuel cells or oxygen from electrolyzers for travel to Mars, associate professor ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JVK
4 / 5 (1) May 09, 2012
Earlier detection of acute myocardial infarction might be a beneficial application of this new technology and cause developers to look back as well as forward in search of applications.

Weitz, Ze'Ev W., Birnbaum, A.J., Sobotka, P.A., Zarling, E.J., & (1991) High breath pentane concentrations during acute myocardial infarction. Lancet, 337, 8747, 933-935.