A breathalyser for disease

HIPPOCRATES, the father of medicine, was known to have used smell as an aid to his work. Generations of doctors followed suit. Syphilis, for instance, is thought to have a characteristic odour; the smell of rotting apples suggests diabetes.

Today, things are more sophisticated. All sorts of volatile organic compounds (gases, known as VOCs, that are given off by living organisms) have been identified, in laboratories, as markers of specific diseases from breast cancer to cholera. A paper reported on a “breathprint” for malaria earlier in the month. But despite all this knowledge, a “breathalyser for disease” has stubbornly failed to materialise.

The barrier, as so often with new diagnostic tools, is not whether such things are technically possible, but whether they can be proven to work reliably and usefully when used by doctors. Owlstone Medical, based in Cambridge, has developed such a gadget.

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Mike Rawson

Mike Rawson has recently re-awoken a long-standing interest in robots and our automated future.

He lives in London with a single android – a temperamental vacuum cleaner – but is looking forward to getting more cyborgs soon.

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A breathalyser for disease

by Mike Rawson time to read: 1 min
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