Dental Tribune USA

Breath analysis technology may put dentists on the forefront of diagnosing illnesses

By John Hoffman, DTA
February 24, 2008

NEW YORK, NY, USA: Dentists may soon be on the forefront of diagnosing a range of illnesses, thanks to a new laser technology that may enable them to analyse people’s breath. The technique, optical frequency comb spectroscopy, can detect minute traces of gases and compounds linked to numerous diseases including cancer.

Although the technology has not yet been tested in clinical trials, researchers from JILA (formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics), a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), expect lasers to soon enable doctors to screen people for diseases just by sampling their breath.

“This technique can give a broad picture of many different molecules in breath all at once,” explains 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 present the research in the February 18 online edition of Optics Express, the free, open-access journal published by the Optical Society of America.

People inhale a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapour and traces of other gases like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Exhaled breath contains less oxygen, more carbon dioxide and 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. When many breath molecules are detected simultaneously, disease-specific information can be collected, Ye notes. Asthma, for example, can be detected more reliably when carbonyl sulfide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen peroxide are detected with nitric oxide.

Although breath analysis is already recognised as a non-invasive, low-cost procedure, its use is limited because equipment is not selective enough to detect trace amounts of molecules exhaled in human breath. “The new technique has the potential to be low-cost, rapid and reliable, and is sensitive enough to detect a much wider array of biomarkers all at once for a diverse set of diseases,” Ye says.

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