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Swansea research to develop a breath test for cancer and diabetes

Researchers at Swansea University are using state-of-the-art equipment to develop a breath test for diagnosing diseases including diabetes and cancer.

Dr Masood Yousef is a senior research assistant in the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating, which is housed within the University’s School of Engineering.

He is using GCMS-TD (gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and thermal desorption) technology to analyse the concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breath.

Dr Yousef said: “Studies have shown that high concentrations of certain VOCs in breath can correlate with disease. For example, the odour of ‘pear drops’ esters and acetone in relation to diabetes, ammonia in relation to hepatitis, and dimethyl sulphide to cirrhosis. There are also certain compounds that seem to mark out particular types of cancer.

“If unique markers for specific diseases can be recognised earlier than traditional techniques, then there is immense potential to revolutionise early disease diagnosis before any symptoms have developed, and without the need for invasive procedures.”

The system works by analysing all the component chemicals and compounds that make up a patient’s breath. The GCMS-TD creates a breath profile, which allows scientists to identify volatile organic compounds that may signify the presence of disease.

Diagnostic techniques based on exhaled breath are much less developed than traditional blood or urine analysis techniques, and are not widely utilised in clinical practice. Such techniques have also previously been seen as crude, subjective and unreliable.

However, due to improved analytical methodology, volatile marker-based diagnostics offers new potential in the rapid diagnosis and monitoring of illnesses.

Dr Yousef believes that the breath test will provide a more convenient and rapid method for diagnosing serious diseases than blood or urine analysis, and will require minimal medical intervention.

He said: “Breath samples are much easier to collect than blood and urine, for the patient as much as for the person collecting the sample. They can be collected anywhere by people with no medical training, and there are no associated biohazard risks.

“Overall, the procedure is likely to be much more cost effective than conventional methods, potentially saving the NHS a great deal of time and money.”

It is hoped that the research will lead to the development of simple diagnostic tools such as test strips that give positive results for specific illness markers, thereby reducing the cost and level of expertise for diagnosis.

Dr Timothy Claypole, Director of the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating, said: “Swansea University is undoubtedly taking a lead in the use of GCMS-TD to identify unique biomarkers in breath profiles.

“The work that we are doing now could well lead to the use of breath tests in routine medical examinations, long before patients show any physical symptoms. Ultimately, this technology will save lives.”

The GCMS-TD equipment has been funded by a grant from the Welsh Assembly Government Knowledge Exploitation Fund. It was originally used to research the level of solvents and other VOCs inhaled by operators of printing machinery.

Bethan Evans | alfa
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