New breathalyzer can flag early onset Parkinson’s, Israeli researchers say

Technion team also identifies breath signatures of 17 other ailments that could be detected by the handheld breath analysis device, including Alzheimer’s and gastric cancer

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of a patient with Parkinson’s disease (Obencem, iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a patient with Parkinson’s disease (Obencem, iStock by Getty Images)

A team of researchers at Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology has developed a device they say can detect the early onset of Parkinson’s disease by analyzing the breath of users.

Since antiquity physicians have been evaluating their patients by the odor of their bodily fluids: the stools and urine of noblemen’s children were often sniffed daily by their physicians. Of these, exhaled breath is the most accessible and useful source for monitoring health and disorders, the researchers said in a paper, one of several they published on the subject.

Armed with this knowledge, the researchers, led by Prof. Hossam Haick of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute of the Technion, set out on a quest to find out if a breathalyzer could help identify patients who are at the very early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition that affects dopamine-producing neurons in an area of the brain. Dopamine, a chemical, is responsible for coordinating movement. Symptoms of the disease develop gradually over the years, causing patients to experience hand tremors, limb rigidity and gait and balance problems. And although there is no cure, the affliction is treated by dealing with the symptoms by using dopaminergic medications, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Prof. Hossam Haick of the Technion holding the breath analyzers that use miniaturized sensors and machine learning algorithms to detect the early onset of Parkinson’s disease (Technion)

Because people with Parkinson’s start experiencing symptoms only later in the course of the disease, when a substantial number of neurons have already been damaged, scientists are trying to find ways to identify bio-markers that can lead to an earlier diagnosis and hopefully more tailor-made treatments to help slow down its progression.

More than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s, with some 60,000 Americans diagnosed each year and nearly 1 million forecast to have the disease in the United States by 2020. The direct and indirect costs of Parkinson’s — which include treatment, social security payments and lost income — is estimated at nearly $25 billion per year in the US alone, the Parkinson’s Foundation says on its website.

The breath analyzer developed by the Technion multidisciplinary team, which included electrical and chemical engineers and medical researchers, consists of miniaturized sensors that can help detect the early onset of the disease and help with follow-up treatment, Haick said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel.

The 10x5x5-centimeter (4x2x2-inch) handheld device holds a set of 40 chemical sensors that have been trained via algorithms to detect specific markers in the breath that could flag the onset of the disease.

The researchers collected breath samples of Parkinson’s patients and loaded it onto the sensors, which have chemicals that react to molecules in the breath. These reactions are transformed into electrical signals, with the breath of Parkinson’s patients marked by the algorithms with their own kind of electrical signal. The sensors in the breathalyzer were then trained to identify those specific breath compositions that indicate Parkinson’s, said Haick. So when people are tested with the device, the sensors are able to distinguish the breath of those who have the disease from the breath of those who don’t.

Over 80% accuracy

The researchers conducted their studies with the breathalyzer over a number of years on a sample population of up to 500 people, Haick said. In their most recent study, published in ACS Chemical Neuroscience last month, Haick and his team set out to find out if their device could detect differences in the breath of patients with early-stage, not-yet-treated Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers tested the device on the exhaled breath of 29 newly diagnosed patients who had not yet begun taking medication for their illness. When comparing the sensor output to that of 19 control subjects of similar age, they found that the breathalyzer managed to detect early Parkinson’s disease with over 80 percent accuracy, almost as good an outcome as an ultrasound scan of the brain.

“Just as a dog can be trained to memorize a smell,” said Haick, “so we have trained our sensors in the breathalyzer to identify those that are specific to Parkinson’s.”

Although the device still needs to be improved and validated with larger studies, the researchers say that it has potential as a small, portable system to screen at-risk individuals without the need for big and expensive analytical tools or highly trained specialists.

To commercialize the device, the baton now must be picked up by either pharma companies or startups, Haick said. The Technion has already reached licensing agreements for the technology with seven entities, some of them big international firms and some startups, in the US, Israel, Asia, Germany and Toronto, he said.

“I think it could be a point of care device,” Haick said, where doctors can screen patients in their clinics. “The development of the disease can be slowed down, if detected and treated at an early stage.”

The researchers have also identified the breath characteristics of 17 diseases. “We have proven that each of these diseases has a signature in breath,” he said, so they could use the same technology for those diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, lung cancer and gastric cancer, he said.

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