What Can Your Breath Say About Disease?

What if a low cost device could "sniff" out disease based on the odors emanating from a person's mouth, saving the expense and pain of blood tests and other invasive procedures?

Such a device might not be so far away, according to investigators at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

They are developing an inexpensive Breathalyzer-type device that will contain thousands of chemical sensors trained to recognize complex chemical patterns, some of which are known biomarkers for certain diseases.

"These volatile biomarkers are free for the asking and taking," said Dr. Frank V. Bright, principal investigator. "They emanate from us all of the time. They are large in volume, much safer to handle than biofluids and available through totally non-invasive means."

Based in UB's Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors, the research, recently funded by a $400,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation of Buffalo, is in the emerging field of metabolomics, the real-time study of metabolites, substances produced through metabolism.

So far, multiple volatile chemicals have been detected by other scientists as biomarkers, correlating their presence and concentration with human diseases ranging from diabetes and AIDS to lung cancer and various mental illnesses.

But current methods of detecting these chemicals in human breath require cumbersome laboratory instruments that would be prohibitively expensive and inappropriate for clinical, home or remote field settings.

A speedy, inexpensive tool for early screening of multiple diseases could improve dramatically the health and longevity of millions of Americans, especially those in whom diseases often are diagnosed at later stages in part due to economic issues and poor health-screening tools, Dr. Bright said.

The UB team is taking a multidisciplinary approach, integrating research in neural networks, pattern analysis, novel sensor technologies, low-power optical detectors and light sources with clinical expertise. The ultimate goal is to produce a robust, reliable, low-cost handheld device encompassing all of the sensing, detection and processing elements.

© 2017 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Foul-smelling breath, usually caused by the breakdown of food. Other culprits include poor dental hygiene, dry mouth, disease, infection, tobacco use and severe dieting.


Most bad breath starts in your mouth, and there are many possible causes that include:

  • Food particles from stinky foods like garlic and onions
  • Smoking
  • Respiratory Infections
  • Acid Reflux
  • Poor Oral Hygiene

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