In an ideal world, a medical mystery could be solved with a
device that quickly and cheaply takes a noninvasive sample and
reports back with whatever condition a patient is suffering from
— a real life “Star Trek” medical tricorder of sorts.
Perhaps more importantly, diseases could potentially be noticed
by such a machine before their full-blown symptoms have spread
throughout the body.
That science-fiction idea moves a whole lot closer to reality
with the recent development of a disease-detecting breathalyzer,
described in a study
published December 21 in the journal ACS Nano.
By analyzing a breath sample, the device can identify 17
different diseases, including two types of Parkinson’s disease,
Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, and cancers
including lung cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and
“One of the major challenges in the modern era of disease
diagnosis is how we can detect the disease when we are still
feeling healthy,” Hossam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute
of Technology, who led the 56-researcher team that developed the
breathalyzer, says in a video
describing the work. Haick says the device, which they call
the “Na-Nose,” is capable of catching a disease in the early
stages and may even be able to predict people that are at high
risk for certain conditions.
The 86% accuracy rate reported in the study, which tested 1404
sick and healthy patients in 9 locations around the world, is not
yet good enough to be used clinically as a diagnostic tool. But
this shows very clearly one potential future for early and easy
A breath of diseased air
With every breath, our lungs expel carbon dioxide from our
bodies, ready to be replaced with fresh air. There are also other
components of air, nitrogen and unused oxygen. But there’s also
The researchers identified more than 100 other chemical compounds
exhaled in each breath, 13 of which were associated with certain
diseases. The device includes an “artificially intelligent”
nanoarray which analyzes the chemicals to assess what levels seem
healthy, not just relying on one simple definition of levels that
are “too high” or “too low.” When concentrations of these
chemicals differ from what’s expected to be “normal,” it’s an
indication that something is off.
press release announcing the study points out, this is far
from a new idea — in 400 B.C., Hippocrates told students “smell
your patients’ breath,” since a sweet smell would indicate
diabetes, for example.
Modern efforts to improve this technology have
involved training animals like dogs to sniff out cancers
and other illnesses. But a device that can accomplish the same
would make it easy to use this tool around the globe, without the
need to carefully train animals.
In the video, Haick says they’re working on ways to incorporate
this sort of technology into smartphones, so a simple
conversation might reveal the early stages of illness. And while
that might seem a bit terrifying, the early detection of disease
is essential. For an illness like lung cancer, it can increase
survival rates from around 10% to something like 70%.
Again, before such a device could enter wide use, researchers
will need to improve accuracy levels. The study reports that new
generations using better materials might be more accurate.
They’ll also need to determine how well the device can analyze
the effects of multiple diseases that may exist simultaneously.
Still, as potential future tool, this shows promise.
“Diagnosing cancer currently is a very painful process,” says
Nisreen Shehada, also of Technion, in the video. “If we can add a
step that is not painful, that is not invasive, something that
people won’t be afraid of, I’m hoping that more people [will] be
tested and that way we can diagnose cancer at much earlier
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