Medical researchers are well on their way to the future with new testing methods that can diagnose a plethora of diseases with just a sample of the patient's breath. Since the days of Hippocrates have doctors connected distinctive breath aromas with disease, but as technology improves, the ambition is quickly becoming a reality.
It's as simple as it sounds. A new range of tools that act as sensor arrays (read: electronic noses) so to speak, are being developed by researchers across the country, and according to a new article about the trend in The Wall Street Journal, they're getting pretty good at detecting health problems. Some of the methods require a tagging material that reacts with certain chemicals in the body and creates a distinctive odor when the patient exhales. Others are simply fine tuned to detect certain chemical compounds in a patient's normal breathing patterns. The Journal's Melinda Beck explains:
Every individual has a unique breath signature—like a fingerprint—that contains not only oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide but also volatile organic compounds. Those are chemicals from inside and outside the body that evaporate at room temperature and are the source of most breath odors. … Exhaled breath also contains a host of "confounders" inhaled from the ambient air—including molecules of pollution, paint, furniture, even carpet fibers—that can interfere with breath sampling.
Quick side note: We have paint chips in our breath!? Slightly longer side note: No wonder Listerene was once marketed as a floor cleaner.
But seriously, the breath tests work. At Cleveland Clinic's Respiratory Institute, doctors have been running tests using electronic noses to detect lung cancer. A study published last December showed that one particular sensor was able to detect lung cancer with 80 percent accuracy, and based on earlier discoveries, it makes sense. After all, dogs can smell it.
This is all very exciting for people who are afraid of needles, but it's even more exciting for, well, everyone. Imagine a future in which you could take a breathalyzer test every morning that would let you know if you're coming down with liver disease or kidney trouble or, God forbid, lung cancer. It could save your life.
University of California, Davis professor Cristina Davis who is co-chairing a conference on breath analysis later this month loves this science fictiondream: "The Holy Grail is the Star Trek Tricorder concept, where you would breathe into a device and a sign would pop up saying what health problems you have." We're somebody will come up with an iPhone app for this in no time.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.