New breath analyzer provides vital early warning of illness yet is as easy to use as a household thermometer

Early detection is the key to health and longevity

Rates of so-called lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer in Japan are steadily increasing in line with the aging of the population. Lifestyle illnesses are defined as those which can be mitigated or eliminated through changes in lifestyle, a concept that is predicated on the notion of early detection and treatment *. One of the most common lifestyle illnesses is diabetes, which currently affects an estimated 8.9 million people in Japan. Given the scale of the problem, diabetes treatment and prevention is a major issue for the health sector. And with treatment costs now in excess of 40 trillion yen **, early detection and treatment of lifestyle illnesses is being touted as the key to health and longevity for the current generation.

Breath analysis is touted as a promising early detection technology. Breath analysis can pick up very low concentrations of specific gases linked to lifestyle illnesses and certain forms of physiological activity. Ammonia, for instance, is an indicator of liver metabolism and H. pylori infection, while nonanal is a marker for lung cancer.

There are two conventional approaches to breath analysis with existing technology. The first requires the use of a large piece of equipment to measure the concentrations of specific gases. This is an expensive and cumbersome approach, least and it takes several hours for the results to become available. The other method involves using a multitude of gas sensors to analyze person breathing patterns. However this approach can only identify a limited range of components, with a limited ability to delineate between target gases and other gases present in the mix.

Conceptual image of component gases in a person's breath

*: According to the Japan Preventative Association of Life-style related Disease (JPALD) website

**: From the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour website

Breath analyzer provides instant readout of specified gases

Fujitsu Laboratories has successfully developed a portable breath sensing device that can instantly measure the concentration of a selection of gases identified as relevant to the early detection and treatment of lifestyle illnesses.

The sensor works on the principle of the weak bonding that occurs between copper ions and ammonia molecules on the surface of cuprous bromide (CuBr) film, a semiconductor material. Very high sensitivity (around 2,500 times that of other gases) is used to detect trace amounts of ammonium in exhaled air, in the order of 10 ppb. Fujitsu has developed a measurement algorithm that can calculate the ammonium concentration within about ten seconds. The sensor system provides reliable high-precision ammonium readings, is almost 100% independent of the presence of other gases, and delivers sensitivity over 100 times better than a conventional semiconductor gas sensor. It is also the first electronic device to provide consistent and reliable nonanal measurements under testing.

The new sensor device and a cross-sectional electron-microscope photo of the copper(I) bromide film

Simple and non-intrusive breath analysis

The new breath sensor device from Fujitsu provides ammonia and nonanal detection capability in a compact and portable device for the first time, allowing fast, easy and non-intrusive analysis with no need for blood testing or any other physical restriction or burden on the patient. This simple and inexpensive measurement solution also allows ongoing monitoring of lifestyle changes on a continuous basis.

In the future, the breath analyzer could be installed in waiting rooms at hospitals and health clinics and used to generate breath test readouts that would be available to the doctor at the start of the appointment. A key benefit of the device is that it is as simple and easy to use as a household thermometer. And given that it is well known that early detection of illness is critical to minimizing the cost of treatment, there is enormous market potential for this technology.

Fujitsu Laboratories is working together with medical institutions to develop a screening system for early detection of lifestyle illnesses, with a view to full commercialization in 2018.