An award-winning team of engineers are developing a smartphone attachment breathalyzer kit with a chemical-sensing chip to diagnose cancer and potentially many other diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis and asthma.
The incidence of cancer worldwide is expected to increase from 14.1 million cases in 2012 to 24 million by 2035. The Middle East is projected to double its present number of cancer cases in the next ten years according to a report by Nature Middle East.
Early screening and detection are tied to favorable survival rates. Some diagnostic tests for cancer are costly, invasive, inaccurate and put the patient at risk. But Cambridge, UK-based Owlstone wants to change that.
The nanotechnology company led by co-founder Billy Boyle is creating a tiny breathalyzer that attaches to the base of a smartphone to serve as a handy and accurate diagnostic tool against cancer.
When a person breathes into the device, a dime-sized chip detects multiple types of gases in under a second. It can identify certain chemicals that are unique to the breath of a person with cancer. The chip inside the device can be reprogrammed to detect other biomarkers of other diseases.
This chemical sensing technology, which the company calls Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometer (FAIMS), has been tested in a bigger, tablet-sized device used to diagnose cancer. Now Boyle and his team wants to the smaller, smartphone attachment version that may be commercially available within two years.
The technology has been used in the military sector to detect explosives or chemical contaminants since the company was founded ten years ago. But Boyle wanted to apply FAIMS into a miniaturized device for health care application after his wife was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. That experience led him to his decision to come up with a low-cost, quick but still accurate diagnostic solution.
“To make a standalone hand-held device, or a module that attaches to a mobile phone, is as little as two years away. It’s just a question of getting the investment,” Boyle told the Daily Mail.
Boyle will be talking about the device and the sensor technology behind it during the Wired Health Summit and the results so far as it is tested by patients at Warwick University Hospital.
His company has already won numerous awards for their chemical sensing technology, including the Cambridge Phenomenon Award and the $120k Distinguished Award in the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE.
“We are working on making the world’s smallest, most portable and most effective handheld breathalyzer for medical testing. And not just for cancer. The institutions and research teams trialing our technology believe it can be successful in early detection of a range of diseases and conditions – including diabetes, TB, COPD and many more,” Boyle said in an interview with Business Weekly last year when he first announced the plan to spin out a standalone venture to create the smartphone breathalyzer project.
If successful, the breath analysis kit would provide unprecedented diagnostic potential directly in the hands of consumers even without consulting a physician. But given the dire nature of a cancer diagnosis, users would likely seek formal diagnosis from their doctor using existing tools for detection.
Owlstone’s project to detect cancer follows a growing line of startups who are equipping smartphones with sensors and apps capable of checking for signs of cancer, asthma, diabetes, malaria and a host of other health conditions.