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Breathalyzer for Diagnosis of Lung Diseases

Mass spectroscopy may identify breath molecules linked to TB and cancer (Nov. 30)

Researchers at Siemens, the German engineering and electronics firm, are developing a new method –– called quadrupole mass spectroscopy –– that may allow clinicians to diagnose tuberculosis (TB) or lung cancer at an early stage using breath samples. The process involves analyzing the molecular structure of the subject's breath. If the person is ill, there is a shift in the relative quantities of molecules contained in his or her breath. Preliminary tests using breath samples from TB and cancer patients have been promising, the company says. According to the World Health Organization, 8.7 million people contracted TB worldwide in 2011, and 1.4 million people died of the disease. If TB isn't diagnosed early enough, other people may be infected. A method for reliably identifying early-stage lung cancer is also needed.

Scientists at Siemens are making use of the old insight that particular illnesses can be recognized by changes in the odors contained in a person's breath. The cocktail of highly complex molecules contained in a person's breath changes in specific ways when he or she is ill. Researchers have used a quadrupole mass spectrometer to identify individual molecules and to determine their concentration in the patient's breath. The substances in the breath sample are electrically charged and accelerated through an electrical field, which affects their trajectory. Particles of different weights are deflected to different degrees and thus land at different places on the detectors. In this way a “fingerprint” is created, from which conclusions about diseases can be drawn.

Tests are being conducted to determine what influences age, sex, and diet have on breath measurements. Tests of smokers are also pending. If the initial positive results are confirmed, the new technology could be further developed for practical applications, the company says. To make the spectrometer suitable for use in a physician’s office, it will have to be made small enough to fit inside a suitcase. In addition, the software will need to be optimized so that it is easier to use.

Source: Siemens; November 30, 2012.

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