Machines that can sniff out sickness

Biomedical engineers are on the cusp of building odour sensors to help diagnose disease.
(All Brite Dental )

One day soon, a simple, portable machine may be able to determine whether you're sick - simply by testing your breath.

Cristina Davis is a Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California, Davis.
Cristina Davis

She's one of several researchers around the world -- academic and commercial -- who are on the cusp of creating odour sensors to help diagnose and manage diseases.

Using breath and odour to help diagnose diseases might come as a surprise to some, but using a patient's scent is nothing new.

"Humans have known for hundreds of years, in fact a couple thousand years, that our smells and the odour that we emit is related to our health status," says Cristina.

Certain medical conditions or illnesses are associated with specific smells. For example, the breath of diabetics can change when their blood sugar is not regulated well.

"When that happens, there's a fruity, strong odour that is in their breath and it's very noticeable," Christina says.

Over the last several decades, researchers have been cataloguing thousands of different odour compounds to help standardize various smells.

They are also working on portable and mobile detection methods -- sensors that can go directly into patients' hands.

What could this mean for patients?

"My prediction is that in the next 3-5 years some of these commercial interests that are starting to pop up will have their first products come out on the market," she explains.

"I think that's going to pave the way for doctors and patients to start thinking about truly non-invasive diagnostics like breath. You don't have to take a blood sample or go to your doctor's office to get information that's helpful."



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