You know the drill…
Whenever you need to get tested for a certain disease or condition, you usually head to the doctor for a good old-fashioned blood test.
You then have to hang around for a couple of days to get the results back.
In today’s fast-paced, instant gratification world, who has time for that? Especially when you’re hanging on the outcome of a potentially serious condition.
Help is at hand from the tech sector…
The Breath Test for Diabetes
In 2013, I reported that scientists at Sharp Labs of Europe – a healthcare R&D offshoot of Sharp Corporation (SHCAY) based in Oxford, England – were working on a 4- to 5-cm mobile blood-testing device that would generate results for a range of conditions in minutes, not days.
Well, as it turns out, Oxford is something of a hub for diagnostic innovation. Down the road at the more recognizable Oxford University, scientists are working on a unique way to test for Type 1 diabetes.
They’re doing it with a breath test instead of a blood test.
While many technologies are sophisticated and baffling, this key to this new technique is based on a remarkably simple piece of long-standing human biology.
As Gus Hancock, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, explains: “It’s been known for thousands of years that people have noticed the sweet smell of the breath of people suffering from diabetes. The sweet smell is this particular ketone that’s given out – acetone.”
This chemical is linked to a buildup of other chemicals in the blood called ketones. These ketones accumulate when insulin levels are low.
As Hancock continues, “Doctors have regularly smelled acetone on the breath of patients who are in a state of diabetic ketoacidosis and used it as a diagnostic.”
The trick, however, is designing a more accurate diagnostic test than just smelling someone’s breath!
That’s where the technology comes in…
To the Spectroscopy Shoebox!
Using a special shoebox-sized prototype device, the Oxford team has found a way to capture the acetone content in a patient’s breath… and then scientifically measure it using a technique called Cavity Enhanced Absorption Spectroscopy.
Don’t let the science scare you.
Dr. Ian Campbell, CEO of Oxford Medical Diagnostics, boils it down: “In order to make breath measurements, you have to account for the fact that breath has millions of compounds in it. We want to identify and measure one of them. So we allow the patient to blow into the device, extract the volatile organic compound we wish to measure – in this case, acetone – and remainder of the breath passes through the device. We then release the molecules that we’re interested in into the cavity to make the measurement.”
By being able to measure acetone at minute sub-parts-per-million levels with the device, it produces a much clearer reading – and a more accurate diagnosis.
The challenge from here is clear…
Make It Mobile
Hancock says, “The aim we have is to get this into a handheld device that somebody can pick up and use by simply blowing through a mouthpiece.”
Take a look…
In doing so, the team can make the device mobile enough to be carried like any other portable device.
But before that, though, they’re aiming to have a working version of their breath analyzer in doctors’ surgeries by the middle of this year.
While this new technology won’t totally replace the traditional blood test, it’s another example of how it’s helping to enhance existing techniques.
And the developers hope that by acting as an initial, simple screen for diabetes in children earlier in their lives, it could not only diagnose the disease sooner, it could also help prevent obesity.