Oxford researchers are developing a "breathalyzer" to detect diabetes

By Heather Mack

A new tool to diagnose diabetes is in the works, and it’s a far cry from the often painful and invasive method of drawing blood. Researchers at the University of Oxford are developing a portable device, similar to breathalyzers used to detect blood alcohol level, that they believe can potentially diagnose diabetes non-invasively and monitor glucose levels.

Head researchers Robert Peverall and his team at the university’s department of Chemistry, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory published a study of the work-in-progress in the American Chemical Society’s journal Analytical Chemistry.

The team built the handheld device with an absorbent polymer that traps acetone from exhaled breath, then releases it into a cavity within the device where a laser probes its concentration.

This is built on the knowledge gleaned from studies examining hallmarks of diabetes in exhaled breath, which show elevated levels of acetone. Of course, measuring any particular substance in breath, which is made up of a complex mix of compounds, isn’t exactly easy. Scientists can use the analytical technique of mass spectrometry – which ionizes and sorts different chemicals and measures their mass within a sample – but this is an inconvenient and sometimes impossible method at the point of care.

Peverall and his team thus developed the device to equip clinicians with an approachable, fast and convenient method of diagnosing diabetes. They tested the accuracy of the device on the breath of healthy subjects under a range of conditions – such as after exercising or fasting overnight – then compared the results with those gathered from mass spectrometry readings. The measurements were a close match and covered a wide range of concentrations, including those that indicate someone has undiagnosed type 1 diabetes (or problems controlling their blood glucose for any reason).

Ultimately, the researchers say, the device could be used several times before needing replacement and could be used in any setting.