man with mouth agape

Breath analyzer is sensitive enough to smell drugs

When it comes to measuring the smallest traces of volatile chemical compounds in the air, the devices in Pablo Sinues’ laboratory are among the most sensitive in the world.

Sinues, a lecturer at ETH Zurich, has been working to optimizing a ionizing device that can interface with a mass spectrometer. This technology is called secondary electrospray ionization (SESI). The result is a device that’s five times more sensitive than similar devices.

In experiments, Sinues and colleagues were able to detect extremely low concentrations of drugs and endogenous hormones, which they had seeded in the air.

Depending on the compounds, a handful to a few dozen molecules out of a trillion molecules in the surrounding air were enough to be detected. That level of sensitivity could make the devices useful in medicine for breath analysis.

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“In the first tests with the new and improved SESI measuring device, we were able to measure certain metabolic molecules in exhaled breath which scientists had not been able to detect in breath before,” says Sinues.

In previous studies, the team demonstrated they could monitor the uptake and transformation of injected drugs in laboratory mice by using this breath analysis technique.

“Therefore our method could one day help clinic staff decide when to administer another dose of medication to patients,” says Sinues.

Current tests are underway to investigate other possible uses, including analyzing exhaled breath to diagnose diabetes or sleep apnea. Sinues also suspects the device could diagnose bacterial pneumonia using breath analysis in minutes, rather than days. Medical personnel could potentially use the device to determine if a person has been smoking or using illegal drugs.

There are other applications beyond medicine, such as detecting explosives, studying plant fragrances, or even winemaking.

“The composition of odor-active molecules in grapes change as the grapes ripen,” he explains. His method could help determine the optimal harvest time for the grapes based on their bouquet of odors.

The team describes the technology in a paper published in Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical.

Source: ETH Zurich