Thursday, February 21, 2008

Futuristic Breathalyzer: Diagnosing Your Health With An Exhale

Breathalyzers are no longer just good for getting a DUI citation:

Now when a police officer suspends your driver’s license he can throw in, “By the way, not only is your blood alcohol level over the legal limit, but according to my breathalyzer—you have an inoperable malignant brain tumor.” Indeed, scientists have found that by simply blasting a person's breath with laser light, you can detect specific molecules that will tell you whether or not they have specific diseases like diabetes or cancer.

Actually, this StarTrekish advancement is not intended to diagnose drunkenness (although it can do that too), but rather is meant to make professional medical diagnostics quicker, less expensive, less painful and potentially even more accurate that current methods. Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder say the advancement would allow doctors to simultaneously screen for a variety of conditions with a mere exhale. Known as optical frequency comb spectroscopy, the technology earned it’s creators a Nobel Prize in physics, and is powerful enough to sort through all the molecules in human breath while also being sensitive enough to distinguish rare molecules that can serve as biomarkers for specific diseases.

Normal breathing involves inhaling a complex mixture of gases, including nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor and traces of other gases like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane, said Ye. Once exhaled, our breath contains less oxygen, more carbon dioxide and a rich trace collection of more than a thousand types of other molecules. He says that just as bad breath can indicate dental problems, excess methylamine can signal liver and kidney disease, excess ammonia is a sign of renal failure, elevated acetone levels indicates diabetes and nitric oxide levels can be used to diagnose asthma, for example. When many breath molecules are detected simultaneously, highly reliable, disease-specific information can be collected.

"The new technique has the potential to be low-cost, rapid and reliable, and is sensitive enough to detect a much wider array of biomarkers all at once for a diverse set of diseases," he said.

Read the whole thing.

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