By blasting a person's breath with laser light, scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder have shown that they can detect molecules that may be markers for diseases like asthma or cancer.
While the new technique has yet to be tested in clinical trials, it may someday allow doctors to screen people for certain diseases simply by sampling their breath, according to the research team from JILA, a joint institute of NIST and CU-Boulder. "This technique can give a broad picture of many different molecules in the breath all at once," said Jun Ye, a fellow of JILA and NIST who led the research.
CU-Boulder graduate research assistant Michael Thorpe, Ye, CU-Boulder doctoral student Matthew Kirchner and former CU graduate student David Balslev-Clausen describe the research in a paper that appeared in the Feb. 18 online edition of Optics Express, the free, open-access journal published by the Optical Society of America. Known as optical frequency comb spectroscopy, the technique is powerful enough to sort through all the molecules in human breath and sensitive enough to distinguish rare molecules that may be biomarkers for specific diseases, said Ye.
When breathing, people inhale a complex mixture of gases, including nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor and traces of other gases like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane, said Ye, an adjoint professor of physics at CU-Boulder. Exhaled breath contains less oxygen, more carbon dioxide and a rich collection of more than a thousand types of other molecules, most of which are present only in trace amounts.
Just as bad breath can indicate dental problems, excess methylamine may signal liver and kidney disease, ammonia may be a sign of renal failure, elevated acetone levels can indicate diabetes and nitric oxide levels can be used to diagnose asthma, Ye said.
When many breath molecules are detec
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University of Colorado at Boulder