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Diagnostics Microscopy and imaging, Technology and innovation, Point of care testing

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Credit: US Air Force photo by Louis Briscese.

NASA has unveiled a new diagnostic technology that is out of this world. The E-Nose (electronic nose) breath analyzer is a noninvasive, handheld device that uses breath specimens to detect declining health (1). The tool comprises multiple sensors that measure breath’s chemical composition, humidity, pressure, and temperature in real time – detecting any results associated with diseases.

Unlike current point-of-care testing, there will be no ‘companion specimens’ to be analyzed in the laboratory to confirm the device’s results.

The lack of space (pun intended) in space is not a problem for the device, given its lightweight and portable design. Astronauts can hardly stop by their local doctor’s office for a check-up, so the sensor chip connects directly to a smartphone via USB or Bluetooth and transmits the data to clinicians – regardless of distance. “Unlike current point-of-care testing, there will be no ‘companion specimens’ to be analyzed in the laboratory to confirm the device’s results,” says David Loftus, a researcher on the E-Nose development team.

“Travel to deep space destinations will expose crew members to harsh environments – especially increased doses of space radiation,” Loftus continues, “so technology for performing medical diagnostics and physiological monitoring is needed to keep astronauts healthy. The noninvasive nature of the NASA E-Nose is an important feature that makes it easier for astronauts to be tested, even when they are wearing a spacesuit.”

But the work doesn’t stop there – Loftus and his team recognize there is still more to understand in order to develop the device to its full potential. “An ongoing challenge is to expand the number of molecules that the NASA E-Nose can detect, but the development cycle is not fast – each new molecule takes a significant amount of time to formulate a strategy for,” says Loftus. “Furthermore, we still do not know all the molecules that are important to measure – we know that exhaled breath contains a rich array of volatile biomarkers, but we haven’t yet identified them all. Research in this field is continuing to expand the number of clinically useful exhaled breath biomarkers.”

Though the device was designed primarily for space medicine, it could one day be used for civilian point-of-care or home diagnostics – potentially relieving pressure on overworked laboratories and bringing disease diagnosis to underserved areas. Loftus highlights, “Pathologists and laboratory medicine specialists will be integral to the eventual deployment of this novel technology to ensure that accuracy and reproducibility are maintained, appropriate calibration standards are developed, and that NASA E-Nose measurements can be fully integrated with information systems for other types of clinical laboratory results.”

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  1. NASA Technical Reports Server (2020). Available at: http://go.nasa.gov/35BuQaY.
About the Author
Olivia Gaskill

During my undergraduate degree in psychology and Master’s in neuroimaging for clinical and cognitive neuroscience, I realized the tasks my classmates found tedious – writing essays, editing, proofreading – were the ones that gave me the greatest satisfaction. I quickly gathered that rambling on about science in the bar wasn’t exactly riveting for my non-scientist friends, so my thoughts turned to a career in science writing. At Texere, I get to craft science into stories, interact with international experts, and engage with readers who love science just as much as I do.

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