'It's a breath test that's really going to change the world'

Aiming for 10-second result, breathalyzer detector for COVID begins early tests

Israeli startup Scentech Medical starts to check its breath analysis tech at Meir Medical Center, seeking to identify genetic fingerprint of virus to develop near-instant diagnosis

A patient participates in a trial of a breath test to identify the coronavirus at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, July 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 13)
A patient participates in a trial of a breath test to identify the coronavirus at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, July 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 13)

An Israeli startup this week began tests with the goal of identifying the genetic fingerprint of the coronavirus and then determining if it can be detected by a simple and quick breath test, similar to breathalyzers used on suspected drunk drivers.

The firm, Scentech Medical, started the early stages of a trial for its so-called breath technology — a mix of software and hardware — together with the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba.

“It’s a breath test that’s really going to change the world of diagnostics in general, and the world of COVID-19 in particular,” Scentech’s Dr. Rom Eliaz told Channel 13 news.

Dr. Abalil Fadi of Meir Medical Center emphasized the ease with which the test will be able to be carried out: “It is non-invasive. And not painful.”

Dr. Rom Eliaz, director of Scentech Medical, July 9, 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 13 news)

The current test for coronavirus requires a nasal swab to collect mucus and saliva, which is then tested to confirm infection, if present. If swabs are not collected properly, for example by insufficiently trained staff, this can significantly affect the number of false negatives.

Scentech Medical says that if successful, its test could yield results within 10 seconds and hopes that it could be available within weeks.

“As soon as we can check a patient in 10 seconds and verify if they are sick, all the borders can be opened,” Eliaz said. “It means the world can return to normal. And with that, the opening of everything else — stadiums, concert halls, restaurants. The whole world can open.”

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, Dr. Udi Cantor, a general and urological surgeon who is the medical director of the startup team, said in April.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, at a Clalilt health center in Lod, on July 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

The Tel Aviv-based company was already developing the technology to try to identify cancer and infectious diseases via breath analysis — searching for their biomarkers in the thousands of different gases present in each exhalation, explained Cantor.

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 see if the same method could be used to sniff out the virus, whose “breath signature” or “biomarker” is still 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 stool, 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.

As the coronavirus outbreak has spiked in Israel, testing has increased, reaching a record 28,136 tests carried out on Wednesday.

The Health Ministry is reportedly planning to tighten the criteria for carrying out coronavirus testing in a bid to ease pressure on an overwhelmed system.

Most carriers of COVID-19 have only mild symptoms or none at all, and some experts say that as asymptomatic people can infect others, massive testing is a critical element in getting a grip on the true spread of the virus — especially when lockdown measures are rolled back.

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