A breath test that works through artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to diagnose diseases was found to be effective in 86 percent of cases. A breath test that works through artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to diagnose diseases was found to be effective in 86 percent of cases. A breath test that works through artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to diagnose diseases was found to be effective in 86 percent of cases. (Photo: American Friends of Tel Aviv University)

This breathalyzer can diagnose 17 diseases

In a new study, scientists lay out how artificial intelligence can detect a person's unique 'breathprint' and work to identify illnesses before they become deadly.

A breakthrough diagnostic device that requires nothing more than a person's breath could soon mean the end of invasive tests, injections and scopes to sniff out some of the world's most serious diseases.

A new study showed "high promise" in the device, developed by researchers at the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel. Of the approximately 1,400 people from five different countries who were asked to breathe into the device, 86 percent were given accurate diagnoses for diseases like multiple sclerosis, lung and stomach cancers and Parkinson's.

How could such a simple test yield such detailed results? Technion Professor Hossam Haick – who led the research along with scientists from the U.S., China, Latvia and France – says just like each of us has our own unique fingerprint, diseases have their own distinctions, too – which he calls "breathprints." His device analyzes tiny particles (volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) in a person's breath and uses artificial intelligence to reach conclusions about that person's medical condition (or lack thereof). The study was blind, meaning that the researchers did not know what illness the subjects had prior to the study.

As futuristic as it sounds, this type of technology has actually been around for a very long time. Physicians going back to ancient Greece have been using odor from the stool and urine of infants to detect VOCs (though they weren't called that back then, of course). More recently, a study out of Harvard Medical School found that trained dogs were able to sniff out prostate cancer with 98 percent accuracy.

The study authors stressed that the device is not yet available to medical professionals, and that "further and larger translational studies are required to validate these findings." But it does provide a launching pad of sorts for this not-totally-new-but-not-totally-understood field of science.

"Overall," Haick wrote, "these findings could contribute to one of the most important criteria for successful health intervention in the modern era."

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