New Technologies Use Breath and Eye Movement to Find Out if You Are Sick

Here’s some truly “bad breath.” An Israeli company claims it has invented a breath analyzer that will be able to diagnose a variety of medical conditions. The team, based at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, has published several scientific papers in the last two years describing exactly which chemicals could be useful markers of diseases like multiple sclerosis, lung cancer and many others

As futuristic as this technology sounds, using the five senses to diagnose illnesses is pretty old school. As Smithsonian.com reported, smelling a patient's breath goes all the way back to Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, and doctors would routinely smell feces and urine to make a diagnosis.

As previously reported, the group published a paper in ACS Nano earlier this year explaining how the technology works. As breath passes over gold nanoparticles, the chemicals in the breath start to interact with them and manipulate the electrical properties of the film. In theory, each chemical in the breath should affect those properties in different ways. The change is subtle; no one property is enough. But with an assist from artificial intelligence, the researchers say they can then figure out what chemical is causing the various subtle changes and with what disease that chemical is associated.

Bubbles A street vendor blows bubbles to attract customers in a public park in New Delhi, India, April 4, 2016 REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

The chemicals being detected are called volatile organic compounds. Another VOC? Ethanol. (That said, Breathalyzers are based on different technology. When a cop pulls one out at a roadside stop, he's actually holding a infrared spectrometer, Forbes noted.)

The researchers found that they were pretty good at distinguishing between diseases—for all the diseases combined, they reported an 86 percent accuracy rate. The technology is also being tested in one clinical trial in the United States to detect if early-stage lung cancer might be returning.

This is certainly not the only noninvasive, sci-fi diagnostic around. On Monday, researchers from Washington University at St. Louis presented research on a breath-based diagnostic test for malaria. CNN reported that seven companies are interested in using the technique in a commercial test. And the researchers aren’t even the only ones coming from Technion to work on non-invasive techniques.

Another group from the university claim to be able to diagnose diseases including Parkinson’s and Grave’s based on eye movements. That team announced their findings in a press release on October 15. For that study, they didn’t study Parkinson’s, but instead tried to figure out if they could diagnose a certain eye muscle disorder called eye dystonia.

Despite what seem like promising results, don't hold your breath; whether or not any of these tools actually become regular clinical tools remains to be seen. As Johns Hopkins emeritus professor Terence Risby told CNN, "clinical breath analysis remains in its infancy." 

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