Here’s another paradigm-shifting innovation in diagnostic medicine! Researchers at the University of Colorado are using a patient’s breath and lasers to detect cancer and asthma (and possibly additional diseases in the future). The technology measures a patient’s breath by using mirrors to bounce a laser’s light back and forth until it has touched every molecule a patient exhales in a single breath. The laser can detect minute traces of compounds that are present when patients have certain diseases, such as cancer, asthma, and kidney malfunction. The new technique is called cavity-enhanced direct optical frequency comb spectroscopy.

In a similar effort, Menssana Research, Inc., of Newark, New Jersey, has developed a device that collects the human breath, then uses gas chromatography to detect volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). The company says its BCA system can detect breast cancer at comparable level of accuracy as a mammogram. Menssana presented this Breath Collecting Apparatus 5.0 (BCA) last year at the DARPATech 2007 Conference (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

“To date, researchers have identified over 1,000 different compounds contained in human breath,” wrote the research team at the University of Colorado. Some compounds point to abnormal function. Methylamine, for instance, is produced in higher amounts by liver and kidney diseased. Ammonia is produced when the kidneys are failing. Elevated Acetone is caused by diabetes. People with asthma may produce too much nitric oxide. Smokers produce high levels of carbon monoxide.

The research team at the University of Colorado, led by Jun Ye, Ph.D., is not the first to examine breath as a means of disease diagnosis. Last February, a team at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio reported they could use a mass spectrometer breath test to detect lung cancer in patients. In 2006, researchers found dogs could be trained to smell cancer on the breath of patients with 99% accuracy.

Collectively, these developments demonstrate how laboratory medicine may be moving toward the day when specimen collection no longer means patients having to endure needle sticks and biopsy procedures. Research efforts to develop tests that use saliva, cheek cells, and breath are demonstrating that it is feasible to use these types of specimens to diagnose cancer and a variety of diseases with adequate sensitivity and specificity. However, will the arrival of tests based on these types of non-invasive specimens mean a radical change in the patient service centers used by laboratories to collect specimens from patients? Should these non-invasive specimen collection procedures require a trained collector, then the laboratory’s role in specimen collection and pre-analytical steps is likely to continue without significant changes.

Related Articles:

Laser could provide breath test for cancer, asthma

Cavity-enhanced optical frequency comb spectroscopy: application to human breath analysis

US Scientists Prototype Breath Test For Lung Cancer