Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are in the process of developing a breakthrough breathalyzer technology that would enable early and quick detection of symptoms related to type 2 diabetes mellitus, cancer, obesity, metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

The research was based on metabolomics or the study of using the unique fingerprint of smaller molecules that are present in our biological systems in both healthy as well as diseased conditions. The study noted that biochemical changes using the new technology could be used for early detection of infections that modify metabolic activities in the body.

With this methodology, we have advanced methods for tracing metabolic pathways that are perturbed in disease, said lead researcher Fariba Assadi-Porter, a UW-Madison biochemist and scientist at the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison. It's a cheaper, faster, and more sensitive method of diagnosis, she added.

The new study published online in the February issue of the journal Metabolism states that the new technique is a simple yet sensitive method of differentiating between normal and disease-state glucose metabolism, using a quick assay of blood or exhaled air.

Scientists hope to understand underlying causes of diseases and utilize effects of biochemical changes as a feedback to initiate treatment using the breathalyzer technique.

Researchers detected distinct metabolic changes in mice by measuring the isotopic signatures of carbon-containing metabolic byproducts in the blood or breath. They explained that the technology is based on the fact that the body uses different sources to produce energy under different conditions.

Your body changes its fuel source. When we're healthy we use the food that we eat, Porter said. When we get sick, the immune system takes over the body and starts tearing apart proteins to make antibodies and use them as an energy source.

That shift from sugars to proteins engages different biochemical pathways in the body, resulting in distinct changes in the carbon isotopes that show up in exhaled carbon dioxide. If detected quickly, these changes may signal the earliest stages of disease, the authors wrote.

The scientists explained that an advantage of the methodology was that they were able to carefully understand the workings of the entire body with a single measure. This is seen as an added benefit as once the disease gets detected, it could also provide rapid feedback for initiating appropriate treatment.

The researchers said that breath-based method was interesting because it was non-invasive and more sensitive in comparison to the blood-based assays. The cavity ring-down spectroscopy analysis in the study used a shoebox-sized machine, but the researchers hope to develop a hand-held mobile breathalyzer that could be accessible even in remote areas.

The current study was carried out on mice with metabolic symptoms that were similar to those seen in women with PCOS, an endocrine disorder that causes a range of symptoms related to infertility, ovarian cysts and metabolic dysfunction.

The researchers found similar patterns using two independent assays and one was based on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy on blood serum. The other was by using cavity ring-down spectroscopy on exhaled breath.