Breathalyzers have been used for decades to measure the amount of alcohol on breath, but what if they were able to detect illness? Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new point-of-care device that can diagnose life-threatening lung diseases using just a patient’s breath.

Exhaled breath contains hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that carry important information about our physiology. Diseases can impact VOC combinations and create unique patterns known as a “breathomic signatures.”

Kevin Ward, MD, Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care (MCIRCC) and Professor of Emergency Medicine and Biomedical Engineering, partnered with Xudong Fan, PhD, Associate MCIRCC Director and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, to develop a device that recognizes and analyzes breathomic signatures to help guide diagnosis.

While the technology, known as gas chromatography, has existed for years, the machines have never been practical for bedside monitoring. Ward and Fan have re-engineered this technology to analyze vapor molecules on a parts-per-billion scale.

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Significant Need

Currently, the researchers believe the device could help detect diseases such as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) days before a physician could make the diagnosis on their own. ARDS causes a buildup of fluid in the alveoli of the lungs, making it difficult for oxygen to reach other organs. The American Lung Association estimates 200,000 patients are diagnosed with ARDS each year. The disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose which is why it has such a high morbidity rate—between 30 and 50 percent die from the disease.

Competitive Advantage

Ward and Fan’s micro-gas chromatography device is fully automated and weighs only nine pounds. The device uses an algorithm that can generate diagnostic results in less than twenty minutes, so monitoring takes place in real-time. The device is also useful for monitoring patient trajectory once treatment has begun.

While treating ARDS is their main focus, both Ward and Fan envision this device improving outcomes for other inflammatory diseases such as pneumonia, sepsis, asthma and others.


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