Blow here: New breathalyzer may screen for diabetes, lung cancer

Researchers hope to soon be able to test our breath for a wide range of "biomarkers" -- molecules that could indicate the presence of a particular disease.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Within a couple years, a single exhale may tell us more about our personal health than merely the current state of our oral hygiene -- and without relying on dogs to sniff out our problems.

The breathalyzer flashes green if no specific disease biomarkers are present in the exhale, and red if further testing is recommended. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

The answer lies in a device called the Single Breath Disease Diagnostics Breathalyzer. Back in 2010, Stony Brook University researcher Perena Gouma began testing an earlier iteration in preclinical trials; for use with diabetes patients; now she has developed a sensor that might enable the detection of a range of diseases in a single exhale.

The sensor, which lives in a device about half the size of a shoebox, is coated with nanowires that can detect a few molecules associated with a particular disease as they swim around in a "sea" of billions of other molecules within a breath.

The process that creates the sensor, called electrospinning, involves shooting a liquid compound from a syringe into an electrical field, which crystallizes the liquid into a tiny wire.

"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," Gouma says in a news release put out by the National Science Foundation, which is funding her work on the sensor.

"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."

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

If she has her way, the device will soon prove successful in clinical trials and be available in just a few years for less than $20.