Researchers design flu virus breathalyzer

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Photo Credit: Hyeyun Jeong | Daily Texan Staff

A new, inexpensive breathalyzer aims to change the way the flu is diagnosed.

Researchers at UT Arlington and State University of New York, Stony Brook created a sensor capable of detecting the flu virus on a person’s breath, in the early stages of infection. The device can be used without the help of a physician and may help prevent flu outbreaks by detecting the virus early. Additionally, the technology can be modified to detect other diseases, such as Ebola. The researchers published their work on Jan. 20 in the journal Sensors. 

The flu, which is a contagious disease that infects the respiratory systems, causes symptoms that range in severity, according to the CDC. While most infected people recover within two weeks, the young, elderly, pregnant and those with weak immune systems are more prone to complications. The flu virus can spread through droplets when infected people sneeze, cough or talk and may be contagious before symptoms appear.

Currently, few noninvasive methods exist for detecting the flu virus, said Pelagia-Irene Gouma, UT Arlington professor of materials science and engineering and first author of the study. 

“There is no detector and someone has to go to the doctor’s office and have testing done, and most of the people spread the disease, so it’s a public health problem,” Gouma said.

The new sensor takes advantage of the fact that different diseases produce distinct breath signatures, which can act as biomarkers. 

“Certain diseases are related to increased content of certain gases or combinations of gases,” said Milutin Stanacevic, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at Stony Brook and last author of the study. 

For the flu, the correct relative amounts of ammonia, isoprene and nitric oxide gas can confirm that someone is infected. Gouma compared the sensors to alcohol breathalyzers used on drunk drivers.

The same concept may be used to design sensors for other infectious diseases, such as Ebola, and even cancers, Gouma said. Stanacevic said this technology may help detect outbreaks early on and prevent the flu from spreading.

“Before there is an epidemic, we want to detect it early and we wanted to make a diagnostic tool that can be used easily and be inexpensive, so a screening tool,” Stanacevic said. “You can do it by yourself — it doesn’t have to be done from a lab.”

The device is currently in preclinical trials and may be available in two to five years, Gouma said.

“What is important is that this shows how engineering and material science and other technology can really develop applications that can find use in personalized medicine,” Gouma said. “It’s a revolutionary approach.”