Scientists are trying to find a way to introduce nanotechnology in your phone to help you detect diseases by breath. Much similar to that tool the police have to detect the consumption of alcohol.
Usually, when you’re developing a symptom of a disease and you’re feeling bad, the standard thing to do is to go to a hospital, and then, the detection of the disease will rely solely on optical microscopes to investigate changes in biological cells. That involves staining the cells with chemicals in a laboratory environment and utilizing high-end microscopes, which are pretty expensive for the majority of citizens.
This technology could make at-home disease detection plausible and could change the way we see the future, opening more doors to new discoveries.
In parallel with the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the cold war that produced a lot of technology including the one needed to go to space, COVID-19 was the one that brought diagnostics into sharp focus. The World Health Organization has called on countries to prioritize investments in quality diagnostics as the first step in control, resulting in more inventions.
"Any change that happens in your body produces a biomarker, and that biomarker, because it has a high vapor pressure, finds a way to come out of your body through your urine, sweat, tears, saliva — or through your breath," Dr. Nasiri - a material engineer at the University of Technology Sydney - explained.
"If you go for a blood test, it can take like two weeks to get results. But breath analysis is non-invasive, no needle, no injection. It's very cheap because you can have it in your phone so you don't need to spend money on hospitalization and tests,” she adds.
Concerning the nanotech size, Lukas Wesemann, the study’s lead author and research fellow at the University of Melbourne and TMOS, assures that the device is only a few hundred nanometres thick and, despite the size, can perform the same kind of microscopy technique that is used a lot in the investigation of biological cells.
“It can be integrated on top of a camera lens to help detect changes in biological cells that are indicative of diseases,” Wesemann explains.
There are currently 17 diseases found to have clear biomarkers in a human breath. They include diabetes, lung cancer, breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, schizophrenia, and kidney and liver failure.
High acetone levels in the breath, for example, is a biomarker of diabetes, while for lung cancer, researchers know of 16 biomarkers.
Now more than half of the diseases listed above have a strong possibility of staying hidden in the human body until it gets too dangerous to handle. Diabetes, for example, is considered a silent disease that you only find out about when you already need special care or medication to control it.
By detecting disease in human breath, Dr. Nasiri said there was a higher chance of early detection before the disease entered your blood or spread enough to be picked up in an MRI in the case of cancer.
“We’re trying to detect the disease immediately. You breathe and we give you the results,” she said.
Other diseases, such as malaria, leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis, and babesiosis, are other potential candidates for detection with this device in the future since they can be detected through optical microscopy.
Imagine how many families have lost a family member because the disease is only discovered later on in life. For instance, when you have lung cancer, it is usually found at stage 4, and you might only have about a 10 percent chance of recovering, sometimes a 6 percent.
This technology can save a lot of lives just because of how fast it is to detect. Being responsible to find out about the disease in the early stages makes the situation much less complicated. The person might have an 80 percent chance of recovery instead.
“The benefit of being able to visualize cells with this kind of device is the fact that they can be alive and they don’t need to be processed in any way before they can be visualized. It’s real-time and requires no computational processing. The device does all the work,” says Ann Roberts, co-author of the study, TMOS chief investigator, and professor at the University of Melbourne.
The fabrication cost of the current device prototype is approximately US$700 because it is made with tools that are also used in the manufacturing of electronic computer chips. The researchers say they are looking for an industrial collaboration to commercialize the device. They’re also hopeful that in the future they can produce fabrication methods that are more suitable for mass fabrication and get the price down too, making it more accessible for the general public.
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