Laser Breathalyzer Can Sniff Out Disease

Just breathe and let the 'laserlyzer' do the rest
lenchensmama/ Flickr CC By ND 2.0

Dogs are pretty good at sniffing out cancer, but now researchers have developed an “optical dog’s nose” that uses lasers to detect a range of diseases by analyzing the molecules in ones breath.

When someone gets cancer or an infection, metabolic processes produce certain molecules in the body. These molecules can be picked up by sensors to tell whether the disease is present. “Electronic noses” have been around since the 1980s, and past technologies have used sensors that mimic our nasal receptors to detect infections in diabetic’s feet, or gold nanoparticle sensors that can detect different forms of cancer by picking up volatile organic compounds in a person’s breath.

However, in a recent study published in Optics Express, researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia described a new instrument they created that uses lasers to measure the contents of gas. Their instrument — a “laserlyzer,” if you will — takes a “molecular fingerprint” of a cloud of gas and analyzes it for a range of different diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and infections. Since each molecule absorbs light at a different frequency, the laser system shoots light at a million different frequencies to spot their presence as well as their concentrations. This laser breathalyzer could be used to give an extensive health screening quickly and non-invasively. A commercial product may be available within the next three to five years.

“Rather than sniffing out a variety of smells as a dog would, the laser system uses light to “sense” the range of molecules that are present in the sample,” said co-author of the study James Anstie in a press release.

The researchers say this technology could also have environmental applications, such as measuring molecules in the atmosphere or in streams.