An Israeli startup is hoping to help healthcare providers detect the deadly coronavirus through a simple and quick breath test, similar to breathalyzers used on suspected drunk drivers.
The firm, Scentech Medical, will be starting a trial of its “breath technology” — a mix of software and hardware — in the coming weeks together with the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba.
The Tel Aviv-based company was already developing the technology to try to identify cancer and infectious diseases via analysis of breath — searching for their biomarkers in the thousands of different gases present in each exhalation, explained Dr. Udi Cantor, a general and urological surgeon who is the medical director of the startup team.
The firm was undertaking proof of concept studies in Israel and the US when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, he said. That was when the company decided to try and see if the same method could be also used to sniff out the virus, whose “breath signature” or “biomarker” is yet unknown, he said.
Although Cantor preferred to keep vague details of how the technology works, he explained that it is based on a mix of hardware and software that enables the real-time identification of volatile chemical compounds in breath.
The process uses gas chromatography, a lab technique to separate and analyze compounds in gases; mass spectrometry, a technique used to determine the elemental signatures of particles and molecules; and a ReCIVA breath collecting device.
These techniques can analyze the some-8,000 volatile organic compounds present within each breath, which play an active part in eliminating body waste, in a similar way to urine, sweat or stools, Cantor said.
“Anything that is broken down by our bodies — part of it is expressed in the breath,” he said.
Many of these gases have a known signature, he said, but there are still many of them that are unknown. The idea is to use an analytical elimination process to separate the known from the unknown compounds and then narrow the process down to find the elusive coronavirus biomarker.
The study with the Meir Medical Center will gather breath samples from 50-60 patients of different ages and medical conditions who are ill with the virus and compare them with those of healthy people, then try to pinpoint those compounds that are consistently present in the sick patients, and thus identify the “genetic fingerprint” of the coronavirus.
The breath technology will help identify patients even before symptoms are present, thus helping to halt the spread of the virus, the company hopes.
In a second stage, the study will be enlarged to a wider sample — 100-200 ill and healthy soldiers in the Israeli army — to validate the results attained in Meir, and to test whether the technology is indeed able to identify patients who are ill with an accuracy rate of at least 85 percent, Cantor said.
The study on the coronavirus patients will start in a few weeks, a Meir Hospital spokeswoman confirmed by phone.
Sentech Medical is owned by parent company Scentech, a microelectricalmechanical systems technology firm that identifies chemical compounds by measuring the mobility of ions in magnetic fields, and other investors, the company said.