Scientists Invent a Device That Can Detect 17 Diseases From Your Breath, Including Cancers

Scientists create a portable device that can detect 17 diseases, including 8 different cancers, straight from a person's breath.

Scientists Invent a Device That Can Detect 17 Diseases From Your Breath, Including Cancers

Scientists have created a device straight out of Star Trek that can detect 17 diseases, including 8 different types of cancer, just from your breath. The tricorder-like Na-nose can spot chemical signatures of the diseases and it’s hoped it will revolutionize treatment of many dangerous illnesses by spreading convenient early-detection technology. The international team of researchers from 5 countries, led by Professor Hassam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is next developing Sniffphone for disease detection right through your smartphone. 


The Na-nose device features a sensor nano-array of carbon nanotubes and tiny gold particles controlled by AI software. This program can analyze human breath samples for special chemical signatures that correspond to various diseases. This works because people exhale over a 100 unique chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the team proved that each disease has a very specific chemical signature within a person’s VOC. The scientists used mass spectrometry to figure out a 13-component "breathprint" for each of the 17 diseases in the study. 

"We found that just as we each have a unique fingerprint, each of the diseases we studied has an unique breath print, a 'signature' of chemical components," said Professor Haick. "We have a device which can discriminate between them, which is elegant and affordable."

 Why is breath particularly convenient for diagnosis?

“Breath is an excellent raw material for diagnosis,” Professor Haick told Haaretz. “It is available without the need for invasive and unpleasant procedures, it’s not dangerous, and you can sample it again and again if necessary.”

Besides cancers, the conditions the device can diagnose include Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis. Crohn’s disease and kidney disease. The Na-nose was tested on 2,800 breath samples from 1,404 people in the U.S., Israel, France, Latvia and China and was able to correctly diagnose in almost 9 out 10 cases.

It’s the first time a device was created that can distinguish between different diseases in a breath sample. Artificial intelligence plays a large role in that. Professor Haick, a nanotechnology expert, explained its workings this way to Smithsonian.com:

“We can teach the system that a breathprint could be associated with a particular disease,” said Haick. “It works in the same way we'd use dogs in order to detect specific compounds. We bring something to the nose of a dog, and the dog will transfer that chemical mixture to an electrical signature and provide it to the brain, and then memorize it in specific regions of the brain … This is exactly what we do. We let it smell a given disease but instead of a nose we use chemical sensors, and instead of the brain we use the algorithms. Then in the future, it can recognize the disease as a dog might recognize a scent.”

Haick said their AI “nose” can be used in other industries as well, like security or quality control.

If you’re looking for historical perspective, even ancient doctors as far back as the famous Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) were used to smelling the breaths of their patients to figure out their illnesses.

The scientists have continued testing the device on thousands more patients since the trial and hope to bring it to market soon. They think making this technology widespread could really impact the survival rates of patients with certain diseases by allowing for much earlier detection.

You can read the study here, in the American Chemical Society Nano journal.

Watch the interview with Professor Haick here:

Cover photo: Na-nose device. Credit: Technion-Israel Institute of Technology/Youtube.

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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