By Henry Ehrlich
Imagine this scenario: you are driving at night and swerve to avoid an animal in the road. A policeman pulls you over and although you explain your action, he asks you to take a breathalyzer. With nothing to hide, you blow into the machine. He says, “The good news is that you don’t register any alcohol. The bad news is that you had better start using your inhaled corticosteroids every day because your asthma isn’t controlled.”
Far-fetched? Not according to Perena Gouma, Ph.D and her colleagues at the State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook, who are using ceramic sensors to detect compounds in human exhaled breath, one of which, nitric oxide, is an established biomarker for asthma inflammation. They have now received a three-year National Science Foundation grant for their project “Personalized Asthma Monitor Detecting Nitric Oxide in Breath.”
We have written before on this website about exhaled nitric oxide—eNO (also called fractional exhaled nitric oxide, or FEno)— in conjunction with a product made by Aerocrine called NIOX MINO. We call it the “naughty-or-nice machine” because sometimes patients claim to be taking their medicine when they aren’t, and when confronted with a hard number will ’fess up.
The team at Stony Brook has been perfecting the art of spinning ceramic wires that can capture individual molecules of different “metabolites”—i.e. gases indicative of particular diseases, such as isoprene detector for blood cholesterol, ammonia for urea detection, and acetone for diabetes, in addition to the nitric oxide detector for oxidative stress. They have used these to produce prototype portable, handheld devices with real-time monitoring.
Dr. Gouma told us, “Our device requires no computer. The numerical breathalyzer displays the sensor response which will be ultimately translated to gas concentration. Nothing needs to be replaced after each use and the average usage time is expected to be one year. Since the sensors and the chip are miniaturized this breathalyzer could be easily incorporated in smartphones.”
So, welcome nanotechnology, to the full-sized challenge of getting patients to take their medicine and keep their asthma under control.