Scientists develop breath test to diagnose liver disease

Credit: CDC / Unsplash

In a ground-breaking new study led by Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical, researchers may have unlocked a new, non-invasive method to diagnose advanced non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a serious liver disease.

Traditionally, liver biopsies have been the gold standard for diagnosing liver diseases, but they are invasive, costly, and come with a risk of complications.

The new breath test, co-developed with Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, could revolutionize the way liver diseases, among other conditions, are diagnosed and monitored.

How Does It Work?

The technology centers around analyzing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in exhaled breath. The human breath contains more than a thousand of these compounds, which originate from the lungs and airways.

The study identified a specific set of VOCs that can accurately detect liver disease and even categorize its severity.

By collecting samples from 46 patients with advanced liver disease and comparing them with 42 healthy individuals, the researchers were able to identify VOCs that varied significantly between the two groups.

The identified VOCs showed a strong correlation to liver function impairment and disease severity.

Versatile and Scalable

The technology, referred to as Breath Biopsy, has potential applications beyond liver diseases.

Owlstone Medical is also adapting this diagnostic approach for the detection of various other conditions, including cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, Director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge and an author of the paper, heralded the breath test as a potential game-changer.

“Simple tests like a breath test, which are easy and convenient for patients, could transform the way we diagnose disease, including cancer,” she said.

An Emotional Commitment to Medical Innovation

Billy Boyle, one of Owlstone’s original co-founders, has a deeply personal motivation for advancing this technology.

After losing his wife Kate to colon cancer due to a late diagnosis, he shifted the focus of Owlstone Medical to the development and commercialization of medical applications of their Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS) technology.

Boyle commented, “We are pleased to be able to report this expanded set of VOCs, many of which are of exogenous origin and may be suitable for development into Exogenous Volatile Organic Compound (EVOC) probes.”

Future Prospects

This early success bodes well for the future availability of this non-invasive diagnostic tool.

If the technology continues to demonstrate its efficacy in further trials, it could be a cornerstone of early detection and precision medicine within the next few years.

For a world where one in four adults is at risk of developing NAFLD, with a substantial number progressing to NASH, Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy could be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for—offering a simpler, faster, and less invasive way to detect and monitor liver disease.

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The research findings can be found in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology.

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