Breath analysis may provide clues to what ails you

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but your breath could soon be the window to your over-all health. Where blood samples are taken now to identify disease, cancer and other medical conditions, breath samples may be the future of medical diagnostics.

Researchers at Kettering University, Oakland University, and McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint, will employ a new technique, comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GCx2GC), to identify biomarkers in human breath to determine if they can be used to detect conditions such as osteoarthritis.

With funding provided by the McLaren Foundation, Dr. Stacy Seeley, assistant professor of Chemistry at Kettering, Dr. John Seeley, assistant professor of Chemistry at Oakland, Dr. Norm Walter, M.D., chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at McLaren, and Dr. Rajeev Jain, orthopaedic resident at McLaren, will be the first to use the non-invasive GCx2GC technique to analyze breath for medical diagnosis of osteoarthritis.

"Since your breath is essentially in equilibrium with your blood," said Seeley, "it makes sense that there may be volatile organic compounds in your breath that could serve as biomarkers for a particular disease. Breath analysis is a non-invasive procedure and not a bio-hazard. I am sure people would be much happier giving a breath sample versus having their blood drawn," she said.

The researchers will compare breath samples from individuals not diagnosed with osteoarthritis and those already diagnosed with the condition, to try and identify biomarkers, or volatile organic compounds in the breath, that are indicative of osteoarthritis. "If we find common biomarkers in osteoarthritis patients, then we can use them as a benchmark for future diagnoses," said Seeley. What we are addressing initially is the reproducibility of collecting breath samples, Seeley said.

"This has huge potential in the medical field," said Seeley. "If this study works, meaning if biomarkers for osteoarthritis can be identified, it opens many doors. We'll just have to take it one disease at a time," she said, in reference to identifying other diseases through breath analysis. "Is there a unique biomarker for lung cancer - for example?"

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The GCx2GC technique for analyzing the more than 300 volatile organic compounds in human breath was developed by Seeley's husband, Dr. John Seeley. "The problem thus far with using breath analysis in medical diagnosis is that breath is a complex mixture of compounds (many at trace levels), and the technology to separate all these different types of compounds did not exist previously," Seeley said. The GCx2GC technique is able to efficiently separate this complex mixture of volatile organic compounds in human breath based on the characteristics of the molecules, such as their polarity, acidity, or boiling point.

Volatile organic compounds are those that go into a gaseous state easily. For example, nail polish remover evaporates at a higher rate than water because it is more volatile.

Breath reflects what is happening inside the body because of oxidative stress. "When your body undergoes oxidative stress, your breath smells bad due to the volatile organic compounds that result from toxins in your body," Seeley said. Oxidative stresses include disease, emotional stress, physical stress, alcohol usage, and foods.

The breath analysis study is the latest addition to the Kettering McLaren collaborative. The two institutions also have a laboratory at McLaren that integrates medical and bio mechanical engineering research focused on improving medical care and facilitating technological advances in the field of orthopaedics.

Written by Dawn Hibbard