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How Breathalyzer Tech Could Diagnose Diseases

The breathalyzer, the handheld device that detects blood alcohol levels by analyzing exhaled breath, has revolutionized law enforcement and helped lower drunk driving rates nationwide. A new version of the same technology may someday revolutionize health care, too.

Researchers at the University of Vermont have proven that a breath-analysis technique can accurately diagnose bacterial infections such as staph, according to a study published in the Journal of Breath Research.

The technique is even sensitive enough to distinguish between different strains of the same bacteria type, Smithsonian magazine reports.

What makes this news so exciting to public health experts is that it could potentially reduce the time needed to diagnose deadly, fast-spreading infectious diseases like tuberculosis. "Traditional methods … require the collection of a sample that is then used to grow bacteria," Dr. Jane Hill, co-author of the study, said in a press release.

"This whole process can take days for some of the common bacteria, and even weeks for … tuberculosis," Hill said. "Breath analysis would reduce the time-to-diagnosis to just minutes."

Building on previous studies of the "breathprint," or the specific gases emitted by different bacteria, the researchers infected mice with strains of the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium, which causes staph infections, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common agent of respiratory and wound infections.

The next day, using a procedure known as SESI-MS (secondary electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry), the researchers were able to distinguish between infected mice and healthy mice by analyzing their exhaled breath.

And because the SESI-MS procedure is sensitive enough to measure parts per trillion, it could tell which strain of P. aeruginosa had infected each mouse.

The breathprint of bacteria has been used before to diagnosis illness, but with a more low-tech device: dogs. Research has shown that dogs' noses are able to detect Clostridium difficile infections in people. Dogs can also be trained to detect the presence of prostate cancer and bowel cancer.

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Marc Lallanilla
Marc Lallanilla
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at and a producer with His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.