Next medical frontier: Portable breathalysers that diagnose cancer, heart disease, and more
In the not-so-distant future you might be able to breathe into a device at home and get a diagnosis rather than go to the hospital for invasive testing.
Raed Dweik, the head doctor of the pulmonary vascular program at the Cleveland Clinic's Respiratory Institute, has been studying the molecular patterns of breath for about two decades, according to The Atlantic. He said breath can reveal what's going on inside the body, because blood is measurable in the breath. Traditional blood-work can reveal diseases like lung cancer, liver disease, and heart disease...and so can breath testing, apparently.
Dweik claimed new breath-testing devices not only detect fatal diseases but also conditions like asthma and inflammatory bowel disease because they have "really distinct signatures in the breath". Some devices can spot higher concentrations of certain molecules, while others show exactly which molecules are present in the body and at what levels. This information will help doctors discover what's happening with a patient in an entirely new way.
"The more we look into the breath, the more we find," Dweik said. "The advantage of breath testing is that it's noninvasive and nonintrusive. It can be done anyplace, anywhere, anytime." In fact, breath testing can be conducted as often as desired - unlike other common hospital-run tests, such as X-rays, which are sometimes harmful in repetition.
There is still work to be done in the area of breath testing, though. Not every disease has a detectable pattern, like esophageal cancer. And even whole groups of people, including the obese, have their own unique breath signature: "It shocked us," Dweik explained. "We now have to look at what processes in obesity make [people's] breath different. Is it that they metabolize food differently? It opens lots of questions."
Breath-testing devices need some hardware work as well. Dweik called them the "next frontier" in medical diagnoses, but technological advancements are causing some temporary problems. Although there are some telephone-sized breath testers now available, many devices are still as big as washing machines and require doctor supervision. Dweik said the "Holy Grail of breath testing" would be a portable Breathalyzer-style device.
Fortunately, there are manufacturers developing some solutions at this very moment. Vantage Health, for instance, is using NASA technology to create an accurate breath-testing device that specifically detects multiple types of cancer in real time (above). The prototype pairs to a smartphone via Bluetooth and relays data to an app. And one day it might also be able to screen for heart failure, diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, and more.