Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breath analyser can predict disease

Scientists are working on a device that can diagnose a number of diseases merely by analysing the breath of the patient. According to the developers, that work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the device is sensitive enough to diseases while they are in their early stages. If it works the way they claim, diagnosing various diseases such as diabetes and cancer may become a lot easier. In turn, a faster diagnosis benefits treatments and a patient's health.

Breath analysis works by detecting changes in the metabolism that arise due to the onset of disease. Various diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, influence the body's metabolism, and this can be measured by analysing the waste products: the gas we breath out. To be specific, the breath analyser measures carbon dioxide, which is what remains after glucose and oxygen are combined in a complex sequence of events that results in the formation of 'fuel' that drives all body processes.

To get their method to work, the scientists injected glucose, the body's fuel, in mice. The injected form is slightly different compared to what we normally derive out of food. It is heavier, due to a different type of carbon atom that makes up the framework of the glucose molecule. This can be tracked in breath: due to heavier carbon atoms in glucose, its waste product consists of a heavier version of carbon as well. Because cells metabolize both the ordinary glucose and the injected version, there is some sort of balance between ordinary carbon dioxide and its heavier counterpart. The ratio tells you something about the metabolism, because it appears to be different for various diseases.

According to the researchers, their method is effective because measurements tell you something about the metabolism of the whole body. Apparently, the analysis is so effective that it can detect changes typical for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and infections even before the onset of actual symptoms. This could speed up treatment and ameliorate the damage a disease can cause. However, the scientists only tested it on mice, so clinical trials are needed first. 

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