In a groundbreaking new study led by Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical, researchers may have discovered a new, non-invasive method for diagnosing advanced non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a serious liver disease.
Traditionally, liver biopsies have been the gold standard for diagnosing liver disease, but they are invasive, costly, and carry the risk of complications.
The new breath test, developed with Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, could revolutionize the way liver diseases, among other things, are diagnosed and monitored.
How does it work?
The technology focuses on analyzing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in exhaled breath. Human breath contains more than a thousand of these compounds, which come from the lungs and respiratory tract.
The study identified a specific group of VOCs that can accurately detect liver disease and even categorize its severity.
By collecting samples from 46 patients with advanced liver disease and comparing them to 42 healthy people, the researchers were able to identify VOCs that varied significantly between the two groups.
The identified VOCs showed a strong association with impairment of liver function and disease severity.
Versatile and scalable
The technology, called breath biopsy, has potential applications beyond liver disease.
Owlstone Medical is also adapting this diagnostic approach to detect several other diseases, including cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge and author of the article, called the breath test a potential game-changer.
“Simple tests like a breath test that are easy and convenient for patients could transform the way we diagnose diseases, including cancer,” she said.
An emotional commitment to medical innovation
Billy Boyle, one of Owlstone’s original co-founders, has a deeply personal motivation for advancing this technology.
After losing his wife Kate to a late diagnosis of colon cancer, he shifted Owlstone Medical’s focus to the development and commercialization of medical applications of its Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS) technology.
Boyle commented: “We are pleased to report this expanded set of VOCs, many of which are of exogenous origin and may be suitable for development into exogenous volatile organic compound (EVOC) probes.”
This early success bodes well for the future availability of this non-invasive diagnostic tool.
If the technology continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in further studies, it could be a cornerstone of early detection and precision medicine in the coming years.
In a world where one in four adults are at risk of developing NAFLD and a significant number will develop NASH, Owlstone Medical’s breath biopsy could be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for – it offers one easier, faster and less invasive way to detect and monitor liver diseases.
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The research results can be found in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology.
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