Researchers at Purdue and National Institute of Standards and Technology have tackled a major barrier in developing breath-analysis technology to diagnose patients by detecting chemical compounds called "biomarkers" in a person's respiration in real time.
Carlos Martinez said the approach could rapidly detect biomarkers in the parts per billion to parts per million range, at least 100 times better than previous breath-analysis technologies.
Biomarker detection can reveal the record of a patient's health profile, indicating the possible presence of cancer and other diseases.
"We are talking about creating an inexpensive, rapid way of collecting diagnostic information about a patient. It might say, 'there is a certain percentage that you are metabolizing a specific compound indicative of this type of cancer,' and then additional, more complex tests could be conducted to confirm the diagnosis," Martinez said.
The researchers used the technology to detect acetone, a biomarker for diabetes, with sensitivity in the parts per billion range in a gas mimicking a person's breath.
A droplet of the nanoparticle-coated polymer microparticles was deposited on each microhotplate, which are about 100 microns square and contain electrodes shaped like meshing fingers. The droplet dries and then the electrodes are heated up, burning off the polymer and leaving a porous metal-oxide film, creating a sensor.
"We showed that this can work in real time, using a simulated breath into the device."
Martinez added that such breathalysers are still 10 years away because precise standards have not yet been developed to manufacture devices based on the approach.
"However, the fact that we were able to do this in real time is a big step in the right direction," he said.
The study appeared in the IEEE Sensors Journal.