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Exhaled breath is a molecular fingerprint

New research shows that our breaths are unique and could be compared to a fingerprint. Scientists may use this new discovery to diagnose medical conditions in the future.

Blood and urine is often analyzed by doctors to determine whether your body is harboring an infection or metabolic disease, and even to detect cancer or organ failure. Now, new research at the ETH institute of technology and university hospital in Zürich has determined that your breath may also serve as a good diagnostic tool.

The research determined that our breaths function as a “breathprint”; a unique collection of chemicals and molecules that depend on your metabolism. The breathprint was analyzed in 11 voluenteers over the course of 11 days by using a modified mass spectrometer, and was found to remain consistent over that time.


The breathprint analyzers are going to have to be smelling bad breath for a living. Your job doesn't seem so bad anymore, does it?


Because of the consistency in the breath’s composition, any change in the chemical markup of the breathprint would easily be detectable. Such changes do indeed occur in patients with various diseases; a well established fact within medicine (previously, dogs have even been able to detect cancer from the breath of patients). Diagnostically however, the breathprint hasn’t been widely used as an indicator of disease due to technical constraints: Previous analyzers have either been unable to detect a wide range of chemicals, or have simply been too slow for practical use.


Speed, in particular, is where the new diagnostic method truly excels. Where a urine sample or blood sample may take a long time to analyze, the breath fingerprint can be read in mere seconds.


Currently, the mass spectrometers used for the analysis are too large and expensive for use in everyday clinics. However, as Renato Zenobi, research leader on the project suggests: "Small, portable mass spectrometers already exist; if their performance can be improved, they will eventually find their way into clinics and doctor's offices."

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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