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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Breathalizer may soon be used to diagnose lung diseases

A Breathalyzer to diagnose asthma.  This sounds futuristic, yet it might be an option for doctors in the near future.  If a doctor suspects asthma you just blow into the Breathalyzer and the device will give give an instant diagnosis.  Sounds pretty cool, hey?

The New York times reports that such a device is currently in the experimental stage.  The idea is that each disease of the lungs gives off certain chemical markers that are exhaled.  Such markers will allow doctor to easily diagnose asthma, tuberculosis, liver disease, cancer and other such diseases. 

The article quotes Dr. Raed Dweik, director of the pulmonary vascular program at the Cleveland Clinic, who studies breath analysis:  "Breath is a rich matrix that can reflect our state of health or disease." 

The Times reports that the device is called breathlink, and "Its analyzers can detect compounds in the breath in concentrations of parts per trillion — a billion times more sensitive than breath analyzers used by the police to detect blood-alcohol concentrations."

"To use Breathlink," the article continues, " a person breathes into a long tube, and a breath sample is collected and analyzed within the apparatus. The device can then detail chemical concentrations of the breath in graphics. The information is then collected and sent to a lab in New Jersey for further analysis.

Because Medicare has refuses to reimburse for the procedure, and for this reason it's not a common practice.  Just by the description it seems like a rather expensive procedure, and one that might not even be worth it.  Yet I can see how it might come to be useful in the future, once the bugs are worked out, and once it becomes a more convenient and less expensive procedure.

A similar device is currently used by some facilities to measure the amount of exhaled nitric oxide, which can be a marker of airway inflammation.  By using the device doctors can adjust medicine until inflammation in the lungs is controlled. 

Yet even this procedure doesn't come without some criticism. Studies are mixed as to the benefit of nitric oxide measurements in adjusting asthma medicine.  Likewise I imagine it will be a while before the Breathalyzer system will be perfected and is used as a common practice to diagnose diseases in the doctors office or in hospitals.

To diagnose asthma the breathalyzers will measure the markers of exhaled markers of inflammation, such as histamine and leukotriene.  

Another device is portable and once you exhale into it "he "breath is drawn across sensors that change color and are then captured on digital cameras. The patterns are then compared with those of people without the disease."

The goal is to not just be able to diagnose diseases but to allow patients and doctors to monitor whether the disease is improving or progressing. 

So this is some interesting research we'll continue to keep an eye on here at the RT Cave.  If you guys are aware of any similar information, or if you've used one of these devices, let us know in the comments below.

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