Image: Loren Kerns via Flickr

Usually, the only thing I can tell from another person’s breath is whether they’re drunk (or the last time they’ve brushed their teeth). But an international team of scientists has created a system that can diagnose disease solely from the chemicals you exhale. A disease fingerprint for your breath. A breathprint of death. A deathprint.

Anyway, the system consists of an “artificially intelligent nanoarray,” made mostly of nanoscale gold pieces and carbon nanotubes. The researchers started by using mass spectrometry (a tool that sorts out chemicals based on how each travels through some medium) to come up with 13 chemicals that make up the breathprint. Then, they had 1404 subjects exhale into a mylar bag twice within a few minutes and sent the bags off to a vacuum chamber containing the sensor system. They compared the chemical signatures from each of 17 diseases, which included several types of cancer and Parkinson’s, to healthy patients’ breathprints and the mass spectrometer analyses, and were able to identify the diseases with 86 percent accuracy. They published their results in the journal ACS Nano from the American Chemical Society.

The system doesn’t sniff out individual chemicals, but rather uses a program to look at the unique combinations of all of the so-called volatile compounds in a patient’s breath, reports Smithsonian. That’s kind of how noses work, making a unique scent signature based on chemical composition.

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The scientists would like to do more, even larger studies to validate their results, and hope to one day create a general diagnostic tool, and to eventually make something portable and widespread.

As long as I don’t have to smell anyone’s breath, it all sounds good to me.

[American Chemical Society]