After several other newspapers, the Los Angeles Times is looking at the Heartsbreath test, which is a billion times more sensitive than police breathalyzers. These breath sensors can already check for asthma, ulcers or trouble with a heart transplant. But as says one of the researchers who worked on the device, "all we need to know is the chemical fingerprint of a disease and we can devise a test for it."
Before going further, below is a picture of this breath scanner (Credit: Menssana Research).
It is important to note that this breathalyzer has already been accepted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in February 2004, but only for use in detection of organ rejection in heart transplant patients. Here is a link to the Heartsbreath approval by FDA for more details.
But now, the researchers at Menssana Research, part of the small business incubator program at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), want to use these sensors for other purposes, as the Los Angeles Times reports in a sidebar article, "In every breath, myriad chemical clues to illness."
Crucial to the test is not the shallow breath from the upper part of our lungs but the breath derived from alveoli, the tiny chambers at the tips of the bronchial air passages, deep inside. Alveoli are lined with membranes loaded with tiny blood vessels. The chemicals in the blood easily cross this membrane so that the alveolar breath "mirrors the composition of the blood," says Dr. Michael Phillips, inventor of one of these breath tests and an internist at the New York Medical College in Valhalla.
Let's get back to the main article to learn more about current and future applications of such sensors.
Someday soon, some scientists predict, hand-held devices similar to a Palm Pilot may be routinely used for the early detection of breast, colon and other cancers, tuberculosis, diabetes and pre-eclampsia, the dangerous hypertension that sometimes occurs during pregnancy.
The Los Angeles Times adds that these breath scanners are particularly efficient.
Recent tests of the Menssana device have been encouraging. In a 2003 pilot study of 201 women, some of whom had diagnosed breast cancers, the breath test identified 88% of those cancers. The test's accuracy is comparable to a mammogram.
And in a 2004 clinical trial that involved 407 volunteers, including 195 patients with untreated lung cancer, the breath test picked up nearly 91% of the tumors.
The Menssana team is not the only one working on such sensors. So we'll soon be able to use handheld breath monitors at home to check our health and the evolution of our diseases.
But also note that these kinds of sensors can also be used for other purposes, such as detecting terrorists, as 'New Scientist' told us in "Bombers could soon be breathalysed" (October 26, 2005)
Finally, if you want to invest in Menssana Research, please read this news release from NJIT (August 9, 2005).
Sources: Linda Marsa, Special to The Los Angeles Times, November 19, 2005; and various web sites
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