Trend Alert: Breath testing for medical diagnosis
Smell, in the past, played a much more significant role in diagnosis of disease, than it does today. It may soon do so again. Research in recent years has shown that the breath of cancer patients, and also people suffering from other diseases such as asthma, diabetes, renal or liver failure, has sufficiently different profiles which can be used for increasingly accurate diagnosis. The breakthrough may be in finding much cheaper ways of capitalising on this knowledge by using either a 'breathalyser' or even specially trained dogs.
Researchers in the US have developed a breathalyser which uses chemical reactions to identify 'patterns' on a 'colorimetric array' - a piece of paper with 36 chemically sensitive dye spots onto which patients breathe. Whereas mass spectroscopy would identify the relevant compounds, it would also be very expensive. This approach uses pattern matching based on the reactions of the dyes
Dogs' sense of smell, which is far more acute than humans' and able to detect smells at very low levels of concentration - is also being explored as a potentially cheaper and quicker approach to early diagnosis. Early tests showed a 41% level of accuracy, in dogs identifying cancer correctly when smelling urine samples. Dogs have now been trained to smell breath too, and in a trial involving several thousand dogs, the accuracy levels were over 80%.
Why is this important?
Earlier diagnosis and survival rates - Early detection of cancers often significantly improves survival rates after treatment. These approaches are non invasive and relatively easy to administer. Wider screening and more preventive testing among those at risk of cancer could save lives.
More effective drug use - These approaches may also be appropriate for other areas of diagnosis, with one possible application being to differentiate between viral and bacteria based illness - which might reduce the use of antibiotics, health care costs and drug resistant bacteria.
Self administered/ walk in testing - Easy to use diagnostic kits are moving into more areas of health care as consumers become more confident and more interested in preventing disease. Developments such as walk in diagnostic check up centres or even Over the Counter sales of diagnostic kits are becoming more of a reality - although still some years off.
Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director, Shaping Tomorrow
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