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New breathalyzer for disease can sniff out COVID, cancer and lung disease in real-time

[May 11, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Researchers have developed a laser-based breathalyzer powered by artificial intelligence that can detect COVID-19 in real-time. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a laser-based breathalyzer powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that can detect COVID-19 in real-time with excellent accuracy.

The research team believes the system could revolutionize medical diagnostics, as breath analysis could provide a non-invasive, rapid, and alternative test for COVID-19 and other diseases.

Their findings were published in the Journal of Breath Research.


The Breathprint

Humans exhale more than 1,000 distinct molecules with each breath, which creates a unique chemical fingerprint or "breathprint" rich with information about what's happening inside the body. For decades, scientists have been exploring how to harness this information, using dogs, rats, and even bees to sniff out cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, and more.

The breathalyzer technology is not new, as scientists have been exploring it since 2008 when Jun Ye's lab reported that a technique called frequency comb spectroscopy could potentially identify biomarkers of disease in human breath. However, the technology lacked sensitivity and the capability to link specific molecules to disease states, so they never tested it for diagnosing illness.


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Ye's team has since improved the sensitivity a thousandfold, enabling detection of trace molecules at the parts-per-trillion level. They've also harnessed the power of AI, using machine learning to analyze the information, identify patterns, and develop criteria to predict a diagnosis.

The Study

Between May 2021 and January 2022, the research team collected breath samples from 170 University of Colorado Boulder students who had taken a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in the previous 48 hours, either by submitting a saliva or a nasal sample. Half had tested positive, half negative. For safety reasons, volunteer participants came to an outdoor campus parking lot, blew in a sample-collection bag, and left it for a lab tech waiting at a safe distance.


Overall, the process took less than an hour from collection to result. When compared to PCR, the gold standard COVID test, breathalyzer results matched 85% of the time. For medical diagnostics, accuracy of 80% or greater is considered "excellent."

The researchers suspect that the accuracy would likely have been higher if the breath and saliva/nasal swab samples were collected at the same time.

Benefits of the Breathalyzer

Unlike a nasal swab, the breathalyzer is non-invasive. And unlike a saliva sample, users are not asked to refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking before using it. It doesn't require costly chemicals to break down the sample, and the new test could, conceivably, be used on individuals who are not conscious.


The breathalyzer technology could revolutionize medical diagnostics as it provides a non-invasive, rapid, and alternative test for COVID-19 and other diseases. The researchers are now shifting their focus to a wide range of other diseases, hoping that the "frequency comb breathalyzer" could diagnose diverse conditions and disease states.

Qizhong Liang, a PhD candidate in JILA and the Department of Physics, demonstrates how the laser-based breathalyzer works, in the Ye lab at JILA. Ultimately, the system could be miniaturized for "on-the-go health monitoring." (CREDIT: Patrick Campbell/CU Boulder)

Future of the Breathalyzer

Today, the breathalyzer consists of a complex array of lasers and mirrors about the size of a banquet table. Efforts are already underway to miniaturize such systems to a chip scale, allowing for "real-time, self-health monitoring on the go." The potential does not end there. Scientists are working to develop a Human Breath Atlas, which maps each molecule in the human exhale and correlates them with health outcomes. The team hopes to contribute to such efforts with a larger-scale collection of breath samples.


The team is also collaborating with pediatric and respiratory specialists at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to explore how the breathalyzer can not only diagnose diseases but also enable scientists to better understand them, offering hints about immune responses, nutritional deficiencies, and other factors that could contribute to or exacerbate illness.

Qizhong Liang, a PhD candidate in JILA and the Department of Physics, poses in the lab. (CREDIT: Patrick Campbell/CU Boulder)

According to the researchers, the breathalyzer has the potential to help physicians monitor chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis. These diseases can be challenging to diagnose, and current methods involve invasive procedures such as lung function tests and CT scans.

The breathalyzer could also aid in the early detection of certain cancers, including lung, breast, and prostate cancer. Cancer cells produce distinct molecules that can be detected in a person's breath, making it a promising diagnostic tool.


Moreover, the breathalyzer could offer insights into a person's nutritional status by detecting the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their breath. Certain VOCs can be markers of nutrient deficiencies or imbalances, and detecting them early could prevent malnutrition and other related illnesses.

CE-DFCS breathalyzer. (a) Schematic representation of the working principle of the device. An exhaled human breath sample was collected in a Tedlar bag and then loaded into an analysis chamber. The chamber was surrounded by a pair of high-reflectivity optical mirrors. A mid-infrared frequency comb laser interacted with the loaded sample and generated a broadband molecular absorption spectrum. The spectroscopy data was then used for supervised machine learning analysis to predict the binary response class for the research subject (either positive or negative). (b) Sample absorption spectrum collected from a research subject's exhaled breath (black). Inverted in sign and plotted with different colors are four fitted species (CH3OH, H2O, HDO, and CH4) that give the most dominant absorption features. (CREDIT: Journal of Breath Research)

The Future of Medical Diagnostics

The breathalyzer technology could revolutionize medical diagnostics, as it provides a non-invasive, rapid, and alternative test for various diseases. The potential applications of the technology are vast, and ongoing research is exploring its use in diagnosing and monitoring a wide range of illnesses.


Moreover, the development of a Human Breath Atlas, which maps the molecules in a person's breath and correlates them with health outcomes, could lead to the development of personalized medicine. By analyzing a person's breathprint, physicians could detect diseases early and tailor treatments to their individual needs.

Overall, the breathalyzer technology represents a significant step forward in medical diagnostics, offering a non-invasive, rapid, and cost-effective way to diagnose and monitor illnesses. With ongoing research and development, the potential applications of the technology are endless, offering hope for a healthier future.

For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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