Noninvasive diagnostic technology developed for space travelers and warfighters might eventually be used by clinical laboratories and physician office labs

To solve the problem of how to perform clinical laboratory tests on astronauts living for months at a time in the International Space Station (ISS), researchers associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are developing diagnostic tests that use human breath as the specimen. Last month, the research team unveiled the aptly named “E-Nose,” a prototype device designed to perform diagnostic tests using breath specimens

Clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists know that breath contains biological specimens which are useful biomarkers for detecting specific diseases, and that diagnostic tests based on breath have been around for a long time.

For example, the link between Helicobacter pylori (H pylori), a spiral bacterium, and stomach ulcers was discovered in the mid-1990s. Today, a diagnostic test that identifies the presence of ammonia and other volatile chemicals produced by H pylori is based on analysis of breath specimens.

Another biomarker is nitrogen oxide (NO), which when found in higher-than-normal concentrations in breath, could be an indicator of asthma. Other volatile biomarkers in breath may indicate infection, metabolic conditions, and inflammatory diseases.

Diagnosing a ‘Battery of Illnesses and Abnormalities’

In October, NASA demonstrated its new hand-held device—fully dubbed the E-Nose Breath Analyzer. Though still under development, the E-Nose device “will have the capability of analyzing compounds found within a person’s breath to diagnose a battery of illnesses and abnormalities including respiratory illnesses, infectious diseases, and cardiovascular conditions,” according to an Air Force news release.

If it develops into a standard diagnostic tool for doctors, could E-Nose have an impact on the revenue of clinical laboratories that perform traditional diagnostic testing?

During his presentation at the David Grant USAF Medical Center (DGMC) on Travis Air Force Base, David Loftus, MD, PhD, Medical Officer and Principal Investigator of the Space Biosciences Research Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif., demonstrated the first working prototype of the E-Nose device.

“The [E-Nose] technology is designed to make rapid measurements—in less than five minutes, at the point of care—in a way that is completely non-invasive. When fully realized, the NASA E-Nose will open a new realm of medical care to both the warfighter and potential space travelers,” Loftus said.

Jing Li, PhD Principal Investigator and Senior Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center

Jing Li, PhD (above), Principal Investigator and Senior Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, demonstrated the E-NOSE breathalyzer during a meeting with members of the 60th Medical Group at Travis Air Force Base. The smartphone-size medical device detects a wide range of volatile biochemicals linked to various diseases and illnesses and could pose competition for clinical laboratories that perform tradition diagnostic testing. (Photo copyright: US Air Force.)

Can NASA Advance E-Nose for Clinical Use?

According to NASA research presented at the DGMC, the E-Nose “utilizes an array of chemical sensors combined with humidity, temperature and pressure” for its real-time breath analysis. E-nose can detect 16 different chemicals in seconds at room temperature, including:

  • Methane
  • Hydrazine
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Hydrazoic acid
  • Sulfur trioxide
  • Hydrogen chloride
  • Formaldehyde
  • Acetone
  • Benzene
  • Chlorine gas
  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Malathion
  • Diazinon
  • Toluene
  • Nitro toluene
  • Hydrogen peroxide

According to NASA’s presentation materials, the E-Nose underwent extensive research and development:

  • Work started at the NASA Ames Research Center in 2002.
  • The device includes the most well-developed Nano Chemical Sensor System in the world to date, which was tested aboard a Navy Satellite in 2007 for 12 months; deployed on the International Space Station (cabin air quality monitor); and field-tested by the Department of Homeland Security for various threats.
  • It was featured in 35 peer-reviewed journals, and
  • Involves nine United States patents.

“As with past technology that has been developed by the Air Force at DGMC, NASA medical research can improve civilian care throughout the country,” Bradley Williams, MD, 60th Medical Group Clinical Research Administrator, said in the Air Force statement. “The Air Force and NASA share the same altruistic medical research mission. Together, we seek to develop the future medical care which will be needed by the US Space Force, and which will also be very useful to the rest of the nation’s hospitals.”

Medical laboratory and pathology group managers would be wise to keep a close eye on the development of the E-Nose Breath Analyzer and similar technologies that have the potential to cut into diagnostic testing revenue streams. Especially if these devices can detect everything from infections to cancer.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

NASA Creates Breath Analyzer to Diagnose Multiple Illnesses

NASA: Health and Medical Spinoffs

Noninvasive Breath Analysis Using NASA E-Nose Technology for Health Assessment

E-Nose