Exploiting the patterns of VOCs in exhaled air: improving disease prevention and diagnosis

Photo by: Fabian Møller on Unsplash

It's amazing what our breath says about our health. In particular, the exhaled air, which contains volatile organic compounds or VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), can reveal a lot about your general health. Depending on how metabolism and other bodily functions or certain organ’s functions, the composition of the exhaled air changes.

To illustrate this more clearly, think of our bodies like a car engine. We breathe in air, process it to keep things running, and then breathe out what's left, like a car releasing exhaust gases. Roughly speaking, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are just some of the waste products of metabolism.

Overall, we breathe an average of 20,000 times a day and there is a lot of information in these 20,000 daily breathing rhythms. With every breath, around 3,000 different VOCs are exhaled in different concentrations and variations, such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide and acetone. Scientifically speaking, the VOC profiles of healthy subjects are compared with the VOC profiles of people with certain diagnosed diseases. Correlated, VOC profiles were found to be similar in certain populations. 

And surprisingly, there’s no big news there.

If you look back into the history of disease diagnosis, you will find records of how doctors in ancient Greece recognized certain diseases by the smell of exhaled air. In addition, Pauling and Robinson et al presented a method in their 1971 study that enables the quantitative determination of 250 substances in a breath sample. Nevertheless, to date the potential of breathing gas analysis has not yet been exploited in the slightest from a technical point of view. 

Now image a e-nose that “sniffs out” diseases early on. That’s the main subject of our studies and product development at VitaScale.

There are trained dogs that can sniff out certain diseases such as skin, prostate and lung cancer or diabetes using stool, urine and breath samples. With their fine noses and their perfect senses, the dogs can smell the subtle differences. How advantageous would it be if this could also be done electronically?

An “e-nose”, so to speak, with which diseases relating to metabolism, fat burning, lung function and digestive tract functions can be “sniffed out” at an early stage through the changed components in the exhaled air - without needles, quickly and easily: We want to classify the multitude of VOCs through pattern recognition and the use of artificial intelligence in such a way that we are able to detect diseases non-invasively.

Some diseases are characterized by certain patterns in a VOC profile. For example, the acetone value in the breath can be used to make statements about diabetes. If there is more acetone in the exhaled air, this is usually due to higher ketosis - a sign of diabetes. Typically, healthy people have a baseline level of 1 to 2 ppm of acetone in their breath, while people with diabetes have a baseline level of 75 to 1,250 ppm (diabetic ketoacidosis).

VitaScale & VOCs: Detecting diseases earlier

We have been walking towards of diagnostics and disease prevention. Our devices are equipped with several different sensors. Because we want to strengthen the holistic information and enable better, differentiated information through the simultaneous measurement of a large number of VOCs in the breathing gas. This opens up completely new possibilities in the diagnosis and early detection of diseases.

Author: Lisa Schräder

Translation: Bruna Rocha


Anderson Joseph C.: Measuring breath acetone for monitoring fat loss: Review (2015), URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4737348/ (Stand: 31.12.2023).

Pauling L., Robinson A.B., Teranishi R. & Cary P.: Quantitative analysis of urine vapor and breath by gas-liquid partition chromatography (1971), URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC389425/ (Stand: 31.12.2023).

Pereira J., Porto-Figueira P., Cavaco C., Taunk K,. et al: Breath Analysis as a Potential and Non-Invasive Frontier in Disease Diagnosis: An Overview (2015), URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4381289/#B18-metabolites-05-00003 (Stand: 31.12.23).

Pleil J.D., Stiegel M.A. & Risby T.H.: Clinical breath analysis: Discriminating between human endogenous compounds and exogenous (environmental) chemical confounders. Journal of Breath Research, Vol.7, No. 1, 2013.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published