Saving your breath

Sensing devices originally developed to find explosives and chemical weapons could hold the key to detecting lung disease.

In a project at ManchesterUniversity, researchers are trialling the microDMX sensor, developed by US sensing specialist Sionex. This microfabricated chip operates as a programmable chemical filter that allows specific ions to be detected by the application of electric fields.

Manchester’s Dr Paul Thomas, who is heading the project at the university’s school of chemical and analytical science, said that the system is able to identify and detect molecules that may be the cause of lung diseases such as cancer, asthma and smoking-related illnesses.

Thomas said that the device is effectively an advanced version of the Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS)-based technology that has been used globally at airports since the early 1980s.

He explained that the system is based on more advanced differential mobility spectrometer (DMS) technology that is smaller and can be tuned to different ions. ‘With the current 30-year-old technology, you set it up and hope that it’s set up correctly for the ions that you’re looking for,’ he said. ‘But this system can be used as an ion filter so that you can programme it to look for a whole variety of ions, giving you a much higher level of confidence in your detection.’

Some explosives detectors already use DMS technology, but its medical potential is so far relatively untapped.

However, early indications from the medical trials, which are being carried out at Manchester’s WythenshaweHospital are extremely promising. ‘It’s very early days and this is not statistically validated data — but on the limited tests we’ve done so far we’ve seen clear differentiators between healthy controls and subjects with coronary obstructive pulmonary disease,’ said Thomas. The group’s aim is to prove the science definitely with a larger scale trial of the technology.

Thomas said that the prototypes that have been used in the trials are around the size of 1980s mobile phone, and that the associated laboratory equipment takes up a great deal of space. However, he confirmed that the ultimate aim would be to develop a hand-held device that could revolutionise the diagnosis of lung disease. ‘Our vision is that one day we will be able to detect a previously undetectable tumour inside a human lung simply by asking a patient to breathe into a device like this,’ he said.

Through the National Initiative in Ion Mobility Spectrometry (NIIMS) the project has so far received around £500,000 from GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca.