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Medicine Science Hardware Technology

Researchers Develop Compact Breathalyzer That Detects the Flu (digitaltrends.com) 39

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have created a prototype breathalyzer-style device capable of detecting the influenza virus in its early stages -- before you start to show symptoms. "What I have created -- together with my research team and research collaborators working on this project -- is a single exhale, portable, handheld, potentially wireless, battery-operated, inexpensive, breathalyzer that relies on gas-selective sensing elements, and which detects the presence and monitors the concentration of biomarkers in breath that signal a disease," Perena Gouma, a professor in the university's Materials Science and Engineering Department, told Digital Trends. From the report: The specific biomarkers the breathalyzer looks for include traces of nitric oxide and ammonia, both of which can be measured using smart sensors. "This particular breathalyzer detects flu virus infection," she continued. "This is expected to be a personalized diagnostics tool available over the counter and it will allow the individuals to monitor their health, with the option of sharing the data obtained with their physician in real time." Gouma has previously developed other breathalyzers, for everything from asthma detection and diabetes monitoring to determining an endpoint for hemodialysis, the process of filtering waste products from the blood. The neat thing about breathalyzers, Gouma said, is that the technology involved can be easily modified to detect different diseases simply by changing the sensors. In this example, for instance, it could be upgraded to instead test for Ebola. As for when this technology may be available, Gouma said the team needs to carry out clinical trials, "but we are already exploring our options for commercializing this tool."
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Researchers Develop Compact Breathalyzer That Detects the Flu

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  • Shades of Theranos (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Thursday February 02, 2017 @10:13PM (#53792653) Homepage

    Until they have a peer reviewed article, this is just vaporware almost identical to the product claimed by failed Theranos.

    • by thesupraman ( 179040 ) on Thursday February 02, 2017 @11:04PM (#53792841)

      Yes, this smells, quite literally.
      There are a limited number of 'biomarkers' you will pick up in breath, and the ones they list are pretty generic (ammonia, nitric oxide).
      The chances of there only being a single cause of the particular ratios they will trigger on, or there being a single set of
      ratios across a population are a round number, integer, between -1 and 1..

      While I can well imagine people suffering a flu do have elevated levels of certain organics in their breath, I would imagine that without
      a detailed and updated baseline for a particular patient you wont have a hope in hell of being that specific, and there will be a pile
      of other causes, for example just the common cold, which shared a LOT of early symptoms.

      So yes, this smells of a 'hey, our 4 test cases look good, lets cash in!' type news.

      • It wouldn't surprise me if an immune response triggered the accumulation of certain organic markers in the breath, after all one of the first symptoms of an on coming illness for many people is a bad taste in their mouths right before the illness sets in. But like you I don't see any possible way they could differentiate immune responses to identify what's causing it. The bodies immune responses to disease is virtually identical regardless of the vector within the broad categories such as virus, bacteria an

  • ok. you're infected and quarantined.
    • Yes but it prevents the next groups of infections.

      • Could help reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics

        • by NotInHere ( 3654617 ) on Thursday February 02, 2017 @10:59PM (#53792815)

          The main problem with antibiotics is not careless human use, its the often just precautionary antibiotics that's being applied to livestock. This is the biggest place where antibiotics are applied. To make it worse, they are also often applied in too low doses. This provides a breeding ground for resistant bacteria. I'm no vegetarian or anything, but I think this is definitely wrong.

        • Antibiotics don't affect the flu and can cause additional problems, so this is irrelevant to that. Nobody should be taking antibiotics for the flu.

  • Does this mean that employers will be able to breathalyse employees to detect those who say they've had the flu but are chucking a sickie?

  • by swell ( 195815 ) <jabberwock.poetic@com> on Thursday February 02, 2017 @11:29PM (#53792953)

    Why would I test for flu if I have no symptoms? Does he expect me to just test every morning when I get up from bed? Seems a waste, since I haven't had flu for around 40 years.

    • during out-breaks (Score:5, Interesting)

      by DrYak ( 748999 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @03:06AM (#53793557) Homepage

      Does he expect me to just test every morning when I get up from bed?

      not every morning, and not everyone.
      but if the technology can become cheap enough, some at risk situations could be monitored (non vaccined people, who are in contact with lots of others, when there's an active outbreak around).

      and there's an immense benefits in detecting early:
      - have the currently not yet symptomatic sick stay at home to avoid spreading it further (with most viruses, including influenza, you could be transmitting before you start feeling symptoms).
      - treat it with specific anti-virals (for influenza: the sooner you start, the better the chances of it being effective. starting more than 48h after the onset of symptoms won't make much a difference - you'll still be dick. being able to begin therapy before even the symptoms starts will surely reduce the impact of the flu)
      thus, if such a tchnology works, you could replace "laying in bed for 1 week" by "working from home for a couple of days" (a lot better quality of time)
      and from an employer's perspective, it means that 1 sick guy wont contaminate your whole company (a lot less lost days)
      (of course, for that you need a technology that is precise enough. i somewhat feel that if the analysis is limited to few gazes mentioned, it might tire of too many false alerts).

      • thus, if such a tchnology works, you could replace "laying in bed for 1 week" by "working from home for a couple of days" (a lot better quality of time)

        Some companies can allow that. Many more cannot. Good luck assembling products or working in a restaurant while "working" at home. Hard for a nurse to take care of patients or for a construction worker to build a road from home. For many people (esp hourly people) missing work is not really a viable option even when sick.

        Few employers provide enough paid sick leave to mitigate this problem. At my place of work people have to be considering a hospital visit before they will stay away. Why? Because the

        • Some companies can allow that. Many more cannot. Good luck assembling products or working in a restaurant while "working" at home. Hard for a nurse to take care of patients or for a construction worker to build a road from home.

          Well, when I was speaking about work from home, i was more thinking about the typical /. crowd, working IT jobs or science jobs.
          Of course for other people, that might instead be staying at home on a sick leave.

          For many people (esp hourly people) missing work is not really a viable option even when sick.

          Few employers provide enough paid sick leave to mitigate this problem. At my place of work people have to be considering a hospital visit before they will stay away.

          Two very important things:

          1- There are countries where sick leave days are the norm.
          It is mandatory for both employee and companies to be covered by health insurance that will pay for sick days.
          usually up to 2 days are "no question asked", beyond that a visit at the doctor is mandatory.

          But yeah, I no

  • by Anonymous Coward
    From the report "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are now reporting that, in the United States, a more immediate health crisis than the Ebola epidemic in Africa is emerging with the reappearance of the H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus, a recurring strain that has apparently undergone genetic drift in 2014, such that vaccines may offer only limited protection" This does not pass the smell test. You do not start with a fright, how about telling me how this device works?
  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @12:40AM (#53793235)

    Using gas from exhaled breath to detect disease is a whole medical field that the people running this study are evidently unaware of (none of them have a medical background). If diagnosing influenza was as easy as detecting nitric oxide and ammonia in breath, we would already have this. The problem is that almost anything wrong with you causes you to exhale nitric oxide and ammonia. The real state of the art in this field looks at dozens of markers simultaneously to correct for common background effects (i.e. air pollution, your metabolism, what you had for lunch...). Handheld detectors for this stuff are all over the place.

    There's a wikipedia article for "Exhaled Nitric Oxide" that goes over some of these things. This study was funded by NSF? Why? If you can Google your research question and find the answer dozens of times over, you don't need to waste some poor grad student's time for 2-3 years to get the answer yet again.

  • by LeftCoastThinker ( 4697521 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @02:11AM (#53793453)

    If this works as advertised, even with a confidence of 90%, I can see it quickly becoming a mandatory test before boarding an airplane worldwide, which is how the flu spreads around the world every year. Sure it might inconvenience a few people who are just carriers without much in the way of symptoms, but the flu kills around 500,000 annually. If we could use this tool to keep it from hopping continents as rapidly, we would likely see flu vaccines become much more effective, as they would have more time to prepare and the disease mutation rate would be reduced.

    • I agree with you that's mostly what I wish they'd do but if you google it the airlines don't want to lose money and they'd have to offer refunds or something for people calling in with the flu on missed flights. Otherwise I wish they'd do it for all the reasons you point out though I'd hate if if I missed a flight :P

      • It would not be up to the airlines, in much the same way airport security is not their purview. It would be required by the WHO or CDC as part of the security screening process.

    • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

      even with a confidence of 90%,

      That means 10% of their passengers would not be able to board the flight. And most of that 10% would not actually have the flu. This would destroy the airline industry completely. Their margins aren't high enough to simply discard 10% of their customers. Or are you saying those people still have to pay? Boy, the law suites from that would never end. Even if they got a refund, and even if the airlines still survived -- how many people would take a plane flight, knowing that they have a random 1 in 10 ch

      • Your assumption is that the 10% false positive would just be denied a flight. It is unlikely that all 10% of the inaccuracy is false positives, it is more likely that it would be 5% false positive, 5% false negative. If you are feeling fine, you could challenge the test and immediately take another. If it was some transient error, you would be cleared and could board and fly. If it was a false positive based on some biological marker, you could get a waiver, if it were some false positive based on a tem

  • But where I live, I just go into a pharmacy, buy a flu shot for 12 bucks and ram it myself into my gluteus maximus.

    (I don't like to wait for half an hour at a doctor's.)

    It's much cheaper than such a device, which just tells you that you have the flu, a viral disease that cannot be cured, only immunization helps.

    • It's much cheaper than such a device, which just tells you that you have the flu, a viral disease that cannot be cured, only immunization helps.

      I get flu shots every year as well... but your statement is somewhat inaccurate. Most circulating flu viruses are susceptible to antiviral medications. It's one of the things the CDC is constantly testing for, actually.

      However I agree that immunization is the best option.

  • by dohzer ( 867770 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @03:59AM (#53793697) Homepage

    I don't think I've ever had the flu. I've been told that if you are unsure if you've ever had it, you probably haven't.

    • Trust me, you would know. Imagine that ten Mafia thugs have been hired to beat you into submission. Then give yourself a horrible cold and the worst fever and chills you've ever had. Finally, subtract fifty IQ points. That's what the flu feels like.
    • Very good this answer, pure truth! If you are not sure, you probably did not have the flu. Whoever had the real flu knows what it is!
  • I have one of these. It's called my nose. I can smell when people (including myself) have the flu, often before other symptoms appear. It's a distinct smell that I've only encountered when people have the flu.

    I bet you could train dogs to tell you when people have the flu for about 1/10th the cost and 10x the reliability of this device.

  • So I can tell a few days earlier that I've caught the flu. How does that knowledge benefit me in any way?

Statistics are no substitute for judgement. -- Henry Clay

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