Researchers are getting closer to developing a new breath test that they hope will diagnose diseases such as cancer and diabetes in a rapid and cost-effective manner, potentially boosting treatment outcomes and saving on valuable NHS resources.

Using “state-of-the-art equipment” originally designed to test for levels of solvents and other chemicals being inhaled by printing machine operators, a team of scientists based at Swansea University and led by Dr Masood Yousef is using gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and thermal desorption technology to create profiles of volatile organic compounds (VOGs) in breath that could signify the presence of disease.

According to Dr Yousef, there is strong clinical evidence to suggest that high levels of certain VOCs in breath can be markers for diseases, such as “the odour of ‘pear drops’ esters and acetone in relation to diabetes, ammonia in relation to hepatitis, and dimethyl sulphide to cirrhosis,” and some even seem to indicate particular cancers.

The idea of breath-based diagnostics has been around for some time, but predecessors have failed to make any impact as their inherent technologies were deemed crude and unreliable by clinicians, the researchers claim. However, an effective and reliable diagnostic breath test could certainly prompt a shift in the market. As Yousef points out: “If unique markers for specific diseases can be recognised earlier than traditional techniques, then there is immense potential to revolutionise early disease diagnosis before any symptoms have developed, and without the need for invasive procedures.”

Routine use
“The work that we are doing now could well lead to the use of breath tests in routine medical examinations, long before patients show any physical symptoms. Ultimately, this technology will save lives,” commented Dr Timothy Claypole, Director of the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating.

Furthermore, aside from the obvious benefit of earlier disease detection to patients, an effective breath test could also save the National Health Service “a great deal of time and money,” Yousef believes, particularly as breath samples are much easier to collect than blood and urine and can be taken anywhere by people with no medical training.