Breathe in, breathe out. We commonly hear this from the doctor as he is holding a stethoscope to us and monitoring our heart beat. But what if we were using the “breathe in, breathe out” mantra to not only learn more about our heart beat, but our overall well-being? A team of electrical engineers and analytical chemists are developing a technology that detects trace gas molecules in one’s exhaled breath. You may be surprised to learn that the information gathered from studying one’s breath can tell you a lot about their overall health. Have you exercised today? What did you eat for lunch? Did you eat too much or too little? Did you have enough sleep last night? Did you spend too much time in a space with poor indoor air quality? The different gases in one’s exhaled breath and their relative concentrations can tell us how well the body is functioning.
In order to turn gas molecules into useful information, we are developing gas sensors, electronics, and algorithms to detect low concentrations of certain selected gases. We then compare the gases present in one’s exhaled breath with information obtained from clinical studies correlating this data with known health information.
Specific gas molecules can be identified based on its size, mass, and light absorption. Some detectors convert gas molecules into ions and collect them to form electrical signals, and some detectors measure a change in electrical signals based on the gas molecule modifying a physical parameter. Many of these types of detectors can measure not only the type of molecule but also the number of molecules, giving the user a reading of the gas concentration in less than ten seconds.
We believe this technology has a potential to improve a patient’s ability to monitor their own health and learn about their current well-being. A device that samples breath would not only be more comfortable than having blood drawn for analysis, but it would also vastly increase access to this information and the timeliness in which one can acquire it. An example of breath analysis is the monitoring of asthma in children. By measuring a nitric oxide compound daily, parents can assess the health of the child and modify environmental or habitual factors to improve the child’s condition. As technology matures, breath analysis may have more uses in screening, diagnostic and patient monitoring than what’s currently available.