WIRED published an article describing the researchers looking beyond blood tests to find other sources of information, for example chemicals in exhaled breath, to diagnose disease.
'Owlstone Medical has developed breathalysers that store biological information from the air we exhale. Their invention comprises a disposable mask, attached at the base to four metal tubes lined with sorbents that latch onto volatile organic compounds that we breathe out.
These compounds arise as byproducts of the body’s metabolic processes, the activities of the gut microbiome, and the breakdown of foods and medicines we consume. They can also come from chemicals we’re absorbing from the surrounding environment. These enter the blood, then transition from there into the airways (once every minute, all the body’s blood passes through the lungs). A single, minute-long breath sample can therefore be taken as a direct read on the body’s processes and wellbeing.
“Breath as a phenotype can actually give you a very broad snapshot on the health of an individual,” says Chris Claxton, head of investor relations at the Owlstone Medical – a UK-based firm that peforms breath biopsies. Owlstone Medical analyses the contents of the metal tubes separately in its Cambridge laboratory – currently the world’s only commercial Breath Biopsy Lab. But the device’s portable nature and non-invasive technique means it can be used anywhere, whether it’s a doctor’s office, a hospital or at home.
Owlstone Medical’s diagnostic focus is to identify precise biomarkers of disease in breath. “We’re in that phase of linking specific chemicals to specific conditions, underlying disease states, or underlying biology,” Claxton says. Currently, they’re running the world’s largest-ever breath biomarker trial – funded by the NHS and including up to 4,000 patients – to identify markers for the early detection of lung cancer.
They’re also identifying breath-based biomarkers that can reveal how drugs work in the body, to help pharmaceutical companies create more effective, targeted treatments. On top of this, the company is building tailored breath tests, such as one for the detection of chemical exposures – potentially useful for people with jobs that involve hazardous chemicals, Claxton explains. This year, the company intends to open new laboratories in China and the US. “Our goal as an organisation is to enable breath as a diagnostic sample type that would sit alongside blood or urine,” Claxton says.'