Smartphone breath-analysis for diagnosis

Smartphone breath-analysis for diagnosis

Within two years, smartphone sized devices could sample your breath as a means to test for cancer according to Billy Boyle, cofounder and president for Owlstone Nanotech.

Owlstone is a spinout company from the University of Cambridge. It was initially set up to develop handheld military sensors able to detect chemicals and toxic gases in the field. The company soon realized that the software powering its chemical sensor microchip had major potential for medical diagnostics.

Boyle explained that his Owlstone has already shrunk the chemical sensing technology of mass spectrometers to a tiny, cost-effective field asymmetric ion mobility spectrometry microchip. This is no mean feat considering mass spectrometers typically cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. The microchip has the potential to detect biomarkers specific to colon cancer, lung cancer and much more.


According to Boyle, the company’s main focus is to create a breathalyzer for disease, which would radically change the way that serious illnesses are detected by looking for chemical traces on the breath. The devices are currently handheld and aimed for military business. The chip, whilst already small, needs additional engineering and development money to miniaturize the electronics even more to make it truly portable.

Boyle believes that smartphone pocket-sized versions could be a reality within 18 months to two years.

Beyond that you could speculate that, eventually, these chips could find their way into consumer smartphone devices themselves. There are already major moves happening to evolve the smartphone as a self-health monitoring device. Adding the ability to detect serious illnesses in this manner early on would be a radical step.

Early diagnosis can be the difference between life and death when it comes to many cancers. Current methods are timely and intrusive leading to a margin of error that ultimately costs lives.

Warwick University currently has a team testing Owlstone’s device on 47 colon cancer patients using urine samples. The results, so far, have been encouraging.

Owlstone’s technology is so powerful that it can test for concentrations of chemicals within seconds. One part per billion, and sometimes per trillion is detectable. The technology is also highly adaptable, only the software powering the chip needs to be altered to detect different chemicals.

Those testing Owlstone’s technology have been able to use breath, stool and urine samples to detect a whole variety of afflictions in able to predict whether an individual is likely to develop problems. The Warwick University team testing the device is developing a ‘fingerprint’ from the subject’s breath in order to predict whether they will suffer from pelvic radiation disease following radiation. The University of Amsterdam is using breath samples to identify which steroids will help children with asthma.

Clinical researchers have already identified the biomarkers necessary for predicting lung cancer with an amazing 95 percent accuracy. There’s has also been success in detecting other cancers such as breast cancer. Once the biomarker chemicals have been found, the possibilities for detection are endless.

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