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Simple New Test Detects Early Signs of Diabetes

  • George Putic

People with Type 1 diabetes, usually diagnosed in children and young adults, must take insulin injections and watch their diet to keep their blood sugar levels balanced.

Diagnosing the disease usually requires taking blood samples, a frightening experience for many youngsters. But researchers in the United Kingdom say they have developed a simple, non-invasive initial test, which requires only a whiff of the patient’s breath.

It is estimated that each year, as many as 80,000 children develop Type 1 diabetes. The autoimmune disease can be lethal if untreated, so early discovery is of ultimate importance.

One of the side effects of diabetes is sweet-smelling breath. Oxford University Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Gus Hancock says it is due to the build-up of chemicals called ketones in the patient’s blood.

“And the sweet smell is this particular ketone that is given out; it's called acetone. And doctors have regularly smelled acetone on the breath of patients who are in a state of diabetic ketoacidosis and used it as a diagnostic,” says Hancock.

British researchers say they have developed a portable breath analyzer that can detect even a very small amount of acetone in the patient’s breath.

Not an easy task

CEO of Oxford Medical Diagnostics, Ian Campbell, says it was not an easy task, because breath contains molecules of millions of compounds while this test requires detecting only one of them.

“So, what we do is allow the subject to blow into the device, we extract out the volatile organic compound we wish to measure, in this case acetone. The remainder of the breath passes through the device. We then release the molecules that we're interested in into the cavity to make the measurement,” says Campbell.

Professor Hancock, who collaborated in the development of the device, says similar analyzers exist but only as desktop-sized heavy boxes.

“The aim that we have is to get this into a hand-held device… that somebody can pick up and use by blowing simply through a mouth-piece,” says Hancock.

Researchers say the new analyzer should be ready for doctors’ offices within a year, while even smaller versions for individual use may be available later.

But they point out the breath analyzer should be seen only as a first screening, and a diagnosis must be confirmed by a proper blood test.

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