Respiratory Diseases

Applications of VOC biomarkers in respiratory diseases

inhaler stock image Breath Biopsy for respiratory diseases
Breath Biopsy applications in respiratory diseases grahic

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gaseous molecules that can be sampled non-invasively in exhaled breath via a Breath Biopsy. Particular profiles of VOCs are characteristic of specific disease processes, because their production is linked directly to metabolic activity taking place within a person’s cells and tissues.

An increasing body of evidence shows that VOCs in exhaled breath reflect specific molecular processes that underlie chronic inflammation, making them ideal biomarkers for respiratory diseases. 

Biomarkers for respiratory diseases

Breath Biopsy provides unparalleled insight into biomarkers originating directly from disease processes in the lungs. This includes processes such as pulmonary inflammation in asthma and COPD, the microbiome and infections. Breath also contains VOCs originating from the circulation - these can provide important information about the systemic effects of respiratory diseases, as well as the patient’s response to medication.

Child with inhaler referencing asthma

Breath Biopsy applications in Asthma

Breath Biopsy provides a non-invasive approach to characterize different disease endotypes. In asthma, breath VOCs:

  • correlate with the activity of inflammatory cell subtypes1
  • distinguish between controlled vs uncontrolled asthma
  • predict loss of control2
  • predict responsiveness to steroid treatment3
  • stratify patients into treatment subgroups4

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photo of GSK building

Breath Biopsy applications in COPD

GSK have already integrated Breath Biopsy into a phase II clinical trial for a novel drug candidate targeting COPD in their respiratory disease pipeline, both to assess the treatment effects of the drug, and to investigate whether Breath Biopsy can help identify the right patients for the right treatment.

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A Breath test for Tuberculosis

Metabolites have been implicated as biomarkers for TB, and promising pilot study data using Owlstone Medical’s technology demonstrates that breath analysis has great potential to provide a simple, point of care diagnostic service that could revolutionize TB detection.

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Doctor examining a lung scan

Breath Biomarkers for Lung Cancer

Studies have already suggested that lung cancers can be detected based on VOCs present in breath (Saalberg et al., 2016), and the world’s largest breath-based clinical trial (LuCID) is currently recruiting up to 4,000 patients across Europe to evaluate Breath Biopsy for early detection of lung cancer.

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Webinar: Breath Biopsy for Precision Medicine in Respiratory Diseases graphic

Webinar: Breath Biopsy for Precision Medicine in Respiratory Diseases

This webinar gives an overview of the science behind breath biomarkers, and explains how you can incorporate breath biomarkers into your own clinical trials. We explain why VOCs in breath are potential biomarkers relevant for respiratory diseases, how they can provide vital information about a patient’s disease phenotype and are increasingly becoming an important route to the optimization of disease diagnosis, stratification, therapy selection.

Watch now

Ipad image with VOCs Asthma whitepaper

Further reading

Read our whitepaper on applications of breath VOCs in Asthma.

Breath Biopsy Complete Guide across multiple platforms

To learn more about Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy Products and Services, you can download our free ebook: Breath Biopsy: The Complete Guide.


  1. Fens et al., Exhaled air molecular profiling in relation to inflammatory subtype and activity in COPD. Eur Respir J. (2011), 38(6): 1301-9.
  2. Brinkman et al., Exhaled breath profiles in the monitoring of loss of control and clinical recovery in asthma, Clin. Exp. Allergy, (2017). more. 
  3. van der Schee et al., Predicting steroid responsiveness in patients with asthma using exhaled breath profiling, Clin. Exp. Allergy. 43 (2013) 1217–1225.
  4. Santini et al., Breathomics can discriminate between anti IgE-treated and non-treated severe asthma adults, Eur. Respir. J. 46 (2015). 
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