Israeli scientists have developed an ‘electronic nose’ that can detect cancer and kidney disease simply by testing breath samples.

The non-invasive, portable breathalyzer test uses gold nanoparticles to detect the diseases, and could save thousands of lives and lower spiraling health costs by detecting the illnesses at their earliest and most treatable stages.

ISRAEL21c first reported on the development by Dr. Hossam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa in November 2006. Haick’s first focus was on lung cancer. Since then he has modified his inexpensive device to identify chronic renal failure (CRF), and he believes that it can also be used to treat breast and colon cancer.

Lung cancer kills more than 1.3 million a year, accounting for 18 percent of all cancer cases, according to the World Health Organization. Survival rates are low because the disease is often only caught at a late stage.

In the US alone, 26 million American adults have CRF, and millions more are at increased risk as incidence of the disease rises.

Sniffing out molecules associated with disease

The electronic nose works by “sniffing out” telltale molecules associated with lung cancer and CRF.

When a cancerous tumor develops in the body, for instance, its cells produce certain biomarkers that appear in the urine and blood. These chemicals cross from the blood into the lungs, where they are exhaled on the breath.

Haick has successfully tested the device on 96 volunteers, 40 of which had early-stage cancer. Findings of the trial were reported in a recent edition of the journal, Nature Nanotechnology.

“Our results show great promise for fast, easy and cost-effective diagnosis and screening of lung cancer,” the researchers wrote.

Haick first got the idea to use the electronic nose to test for kidney diseases after a conversation between Haick, Prof. Zaid Abassi and Prof. Farid Nakhoul of the Technion Faculty of Medicine and Rambam Medical Center, who told him that one characteristic of patients with diseased kidneys is an ammonia-like odor in the breath.

Diagnosis when a disease is still treatable

“This technology will enable diagnosis even before the disease begins to progress,” said Haick of the Technion Faculty of Chemical Engineering and the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute. “When detected at such an early stage, kidney diseases can be dramatically slowed with medication and diet.”

Haick added that even in cases where chronic renal failure is discovered in its advanced stages, appropriate medication can slow its progress and spare the patient’s deterioration towards end-stage renal disease, and the need for dialysis.

Haick and his team have tested the electronic nose on the exhaled breath of lab rats with no kidney function and normal kidney function.

The device identified 27 volatile organic compounds that appear only in the breath of rats with no kidney function. Of these, the team identified the five most important compounds that signal the development of kidney disease.

Large-scale research is now being carried out by Nakhoul, the director of the Ambulatory Nephrology Unit at Rambam Hospital, to test the technology using breath samples from kidney disease patients.

Doctors are likely to welcome Haick’s development. Current methods for testing for kidney diseases can be inaccurate and invasive. According to the researchers, blood and urine tests now used to diagnose CRF can come out “normal” even when patients have already lost 65-75% of their kidney function. The most reliable test, a kidney biopsy, may result in infections and bleeding.

As small as a mobile phone

The team’s next challenge is to distinguish between the various types of kidney disease and identify their stages. This will enable doctors not only to diagnose the disease, but also accurately monitor a patient’s response to medication and lifestyle changes.

Haick hopes the electronic nose, which uses tiny nano detectors, will eventually be as small as a mobile phone.

“This device is not at all expensive. The whole idea in this development was to devise something very sensitive, and very cheap and very portable,” says Haick, who reported his findings of kidney disease in the journal ACS Nano.

A Nazareth-born researcher who completed his Ph.D. at the Technion, Haick lives near the institute in Haifa with his wife, a chemist who works with the Health Ministry.

Haick was no newcomer to electronic olfactory technology, having spent two years as a senior lecturer following his post-doctorate at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), where “the group that I worked with developed electronic noses and devices for the NASA space shuttle, so I received some good training” Haick said.

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