Just breathe – Borstel starts breath analysis study

Study participant breathes into mass spectrometer

“Please breathe ouuuut…and stop! Thank you, that’s it.” A visit at the pneumologist might be simple as that one day. A new study at Research Center Borstel is investigating how substances in exhaled air can be used to diagnose lung diseases. Scientists are looking for healthy volunteers to participate.

It is known since ancient times that our breath contains information about our state of health. Even then, the smell of breath was interpreted and gave indications of diseases such as diabetes or liver dysfunction. It is therefore hardly surprising that animals with a keen sense of smell, such as dogs or rats, are also able to detect diseases such as cancer or covid-19 in humans.

From ancient times to the future

Since it is relatively costly to train animals, members of PD Dr. Dominik Schwudke’s research group Bioanalytical Chemistry at the Research Center Borstel are taking a different, and also more standardized, approach: they are convinced that breath analysis using mass spectroscopy opens up innovative diagnostic possibilities. Dr. Franziska Waldow, head of the pilot study, explains: “Initially, healthy individuals will be examined to test the methodology of this highly sensitive technique as well as the data basis.” To this end, measurements with volunteers will be conducted until March 2022. For this purpose, healthy persons aged 18 and older are being sought to have their breath analyzed in a one-on-one appointment.

Currently, physicians primarily diagnose lung diseases using functional measurements or radiological imaging methods. However, these often detect pathological changes only at an advanced stage of the disease. Breath analysis, on the other hand, is particularly interesting for the early detection of lung diseases such as COPD, lung cancer, but also infections of the airways. The molecules to be analyzed originate from the blood and enter the breath via gas exchange in the lungs. Since our blood circulation links all organs, breath analysis could also be used to obtain medical information away from the respiratory system.

New technology to be tested in Borstel

The technology for this study was developed by Plasmion GmbH (Augsburg). It is now being tested in all its details. First, test subjects blow directly into the device via an adapter. Molecules from the breath are ionized by plasma on their way into the mass spectrometer and separated according to their molecular mass. Since types of molecules can be determined by this method, individual metabolite profiles can be measured for each test person. Thus, a fingerprint of the state of health is obtained with the help of breath. Research on such minimally invasive diagnostics is of great interest for the further development of personalized medicine at the DZL and the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF). Other DZL projects on this topic are ongoing in the ALLIANCE asthma registry and the EMoLung study in the disease area lung cancer. However, both projects also highlight aspects that require further research.

The new Borstel study is intended to contribute to this. “What makes this project so appealing to me is the opportunity to combine state-of-the-art technology, in this case mass spectrometry, directly with a medical application. After all, somebody just needs to exhale in a controlled manner,” says Richard Küchler, who is writing his master’s thesis on this study and would also like to provide participants with insights into current lung research as part of this work.

Interested persons can find out more about the study on the website www.atemanalytik.fz-borstel.de and easily register online to take part.


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