Scientists Develop Breathalyzer That Can ‘Smell’ Infection

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online
No longer the sole the domain of law enforcement, breathalyzers are being used more and more by scientists who want a faster, less invasive way to assess patients.
According to a new report in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from University of California, Irvine have developed breathalyzer technology capable of determining the severity of bacterial and other infections.
In the study, the California researchers worked with a method originally developed to analyze air pollution. They used it to associate levels of inflammation in mice with naturally produced levels of carbon monoxide in breath.
“Breath analysis has been showing promise as a diagnostic tool in a number of chronic diseases,” said study author Dr. Alan Barbour, a professor of microbiology, molecular genetics and medicine at UC Irvine. “This study provides the first evidence…that it can be used for rapid clinical assessment of infections, which can lead to prompt institution of effective treatments.”
The air pollution method was originally developed by chemists at UC Irvine, and Barbour wanted to see if the technique could be used to detect low-level biomarkers that are the product of a body’s inflammatory response to infection. While these biomarkers can be detected in the blood, the research team decided to see if a breathalyzer could be developed, creating a less invasive test.
The scientists used mice with bacterial blood infections to refine their technology. They found that higher levels of infection correlated to higher carbon monoxide-to-carbon dioxide ratios in breath samples. Carbon monoxide returned to normal soon after the mice were given an antibiotic, showing that carbon monoxide is a dependable indicator of infection.
“Using a breath analysis method like this could help physicians in the emergency room and ICU make critical decisions about serious infections more quickly than if they had to wait for blood tests to come back from the lab,” Barbour said.
The UC Irvine scientist said that he plans to begin testing the technology using human breath samples and subjects.
Scientists in Japan recently announced a different spin on the breathalyzer concept – using it to determine if exercisers are beginning to burn fat.
Acetone levels in the blood rise when the body breaks down fat and the experimental device is designed to show when this excess acetone makes its way from the blood into the lungs and out as breath. After breathing into the device for ten seconds, the results of the breathalyzer are sent to a smartphone via Bluetooth or a cable connection.
Earlier this year, researchers in Sweden announced they had expanded on the most prevalent use of breathalyzers and designed one capable of detecting the presence of 12 different drugs in human breath. The device is able to pick up hints of marijuana, cocaine, opiates and methamphetamines with 87 percent accuracy.
While that level of accuracy might not be enough to warrant a conviction in court, the device in its current state could be used for roadside stops that could then be followed up with further testing back at a police station.