PEOPLE who are worried about bad breath often reach for a toothbrush, a Tic Tac or an Altoid.
But in the future, personal breath monitoring may include far more than breath fresheners.
Scientists are building sophisticated electronic and chemical sniffers that examine the puffs of exhaled air for telltale signs of cancer, tuberculosis, asthma and other maladies, as well as for radiation exposure.
“There are clear signatures in the breath for liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease” and diseases of the lungs, said Dr. Raed Dweik, director of the pulmonary vascular program at the Cleveland Clinic, who studies breath analysis. “My sense is that breath analysis is the future of medical testing, complementing many of the blood and imaging steps we do today.”
“Breath is a rich matrix that can reflect our state of health or disease,” Dr. Dweik said. In fact, he observed, breath is so rich in chemical compounds that fully understanding it has proved challenging. Each exhalation contains gases like carbon dioxide, of course, but also the volatile remains of recent snacks, medicines and even compounds inhaled from things like carpeting, upholstery or various kinds of air pollution.
But monitors can sort out these exhaled substances with increasing sensitivity, bringing breath analysis closer to widespread use as a noninvasive tool in medical diagnosis and treatment.
Menssana Research, a biotechnology company in Fort Lee, N.J., is testing a desktop system called BreathLink for use in rapid identification of active pulmonary tuberculosis and other diseases, said Dr. Michael Phillips, the company’s chief executive and a professor of clinical medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. The system is designed to work wherever there is an Internet connection.
Its analyzers can detect compounds in the breath in concentrations of parts per trillion — a billion times more sensitive than breath analyzers used by the police to detect blood-alcohol concentrations, Dr. Phillips said. To use Breathlink, a person breathes into a long tube, and a breath sample is collected and analyzed within the apparatus. The device can then detail chemical concentrations of the breath in graphics.
“Then we can send that information to our lab in New Jersey from anywhere in the world” for further analysis, he said.