These Breathalyzers Can Sniff Out If You’re Carrying A Disease

Testing for everything from diabetes to lung cancer to asthma could get a lot easier and faster.

Some day soon we may be able to tell if someone has cancer just by having them breathe into a bag


Researchers at the University of Adelaide are working on a laser system–an “optical dog’s nose”–that senses for the content of breath gases. It can tell if a sample contains particular molecules by the way telltale molecules absorb light at certain frequencies. Think of it as a breathalyzer that diagnoses disease much like the breathalyzers we have for drunk drivers.

James Anstie, who leads the work, says diseases like diabetes, lung cancer, and asthma produce indicative compounds that can be picked up by the experimental machine.

“It has been known for centuries that diabetes causes a sweetness of breath, which is, in fact, acetone appearing in the breath,” he says. “Nitric oxide is a well-known biomarker for asthma and concentrations of volatile organic compounds [show] the presence of lung cancer. These tests are not all that mature, but show great promise.”

Anstie is working on a suitcase-sized device for hospitals or clinics. The idea is for patients to blow either into a bag or the machine itself and for it to give an immediate readout. Potentially it could give quicker and less invasive diagnoses, but more research is still needed. One problem is to cope with variations between people in how they present gases in their breath. Anstie hopes to have a full prototype in a couple of years.

The European Union-funded SniffPhone project is further advanced. An attachment and app for an everyday cellphone, it’s been tested with dozens of real-life subjects and found to have a 90% detection rate for lung cancer.

Hossam Haick, a professor at Technion University in Israel, claims the device could replace CT scans, blood tests, biopsies, and ultrasound tests and make diagnosis more portable and timely than it is today. The project is a collaboration between researchers in Israel, Austria, Germany, Finland, Ireland, and Latvia.


“The SniffPhone [will] be made tinier and cheaper than disease detection solutions currently, consume little power, and most importantly, it will enable immediate and early diagnosis that is both accurate and non-invasive,” Haick told the Times of Israel earlier this year. “Early diagnosis can save lives, particularly in life-threatening diseases such as cancer.”

The University of Louisville and University of Georgia have other interesting projects in a similar vein. If some pan out, it looks like it may become much easier to know whether you have a wide variety of diseases.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.