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Experimental technology can 'smell' disease on your breath

Susan Scutti, CNN | 11/7/2017, 8:22 a.m.
Smell is a primary human sense, key to our survival.
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Smell is a primary human sense, key to our survival.

Like a super-sensitive human nose, an experimental technology can "smell" and identify the chemical composition of a person's breath and then diagnose up to 17 potential diseases, according to the scientists who developed it.

These researchers, led by Hossam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, say their Na-Nose, which uses nanorays to analyze breath, can identify Parkinson's disease, various cancers, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease with 86% accuracy.

"I would say our technology in many cases (is) equivalent to the accuracy of the currently available invasive technology," Haick said, adding that for some diseases, including gastric cancer, Na-Nose has a "much higher" accuracy rate than currently available technologies. And, unlike most screenings, including standard blood tests, breath analysis technology is noninvasive -- a benefit most patients would appreciate.

The theory behind the technology is that each of us has a unique chemical "fingerprint." Each disease also has a particular chemical signature, which can be detected on our breath. The Na-Nose technology, which consists of a sensor chamber with a breathing tube and software, is able to detect this precise chemistry of disease by interpreting the impact on our usual chemical fingerprint.

Seven companies have licensed the underlying research for the technology from Technion in hopes of creating a commercial product, Haick said. He hopes that the companies, each specializing in a different application, will translate the science and technology from the lab to mass production.

One application, for example, would turn smartphones into "sniffphones" that would monitor our health routinely.

But with further testing and regulations to meet, neither the Na-nose device nor any variations will be available on the market -- or in our doctor's offices -- for a number of years, said Haick.

Dogs, flies and rats

Though Na-Nose may seem revolutionary, smell was recognized as a potential diagnostic tool in antiquity.

"The ancient Greeks used breath and urine scent to diagnose disease," said Dr. Mangilal Agarwal, director of the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute and an associate professor at Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. "Thucydides said there was a specific scent to plague victims in Athens, and Hippocrates cataloged a specific disease because it caused bad breath and bad-smelling sweat."

Agarwal, who is not involved with the Na-Nose technology, said he is working on a number of projects that analyze scents to diagnose diseases, including hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), prostate cancer and breast cancer.

"Breath has the scents or volatile biomarkers necessary to identify many diseases," he said. "We know this from canines who can detect hypoglycemia and epileptic seizures, fruit flies (and canines) that can detect cancer, and from giant rats that detect tuberculosis in Africa."

Similar research is being conducted in Spain, Latvia, Belgium, England, Italy and various corners of the United States.

"Dr. Haick's group is certainly ahead of our group in terms of getting close to doctor's visit tests," Agarwal said, adding that an important aspect to breath analysis is that it "excels at capturing changes in human health in a noninvasive manner."