By Jaimie Dalessio
Breathalyzers may soon do a lot more than earn motorists a ticket for drunk driving: they could one day predict and diagnose a wide range of health problems, including heart failure and obesity.
In a paper published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Raed Dweik, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic, detailed how and his colleagues successfully detected heart failure in patients using breath analysis. "We were actually very surprised by the finding," said Dr. Dweik, who has studied breath testing extensively. He and his team had at first included heart failure patients as a control group for a study analyzing the breath of patients with kidney failure. Then they realized the heart failure patients had their own unique "breathprint." A finding like this is what makes this particular field of research, which in some ways is still in its infancy, so exciting, Dweik said.
"Breath testing, one can argue, is as old as medicine itself, even though we don't think of it that way," said Dweik. "A long time ago, physicians noticed that people with certain diseases, like diabetes, kidney failure, or liver failure, have a different smell to their breath. We knew this, but we didn't have a way to test it."
In the last 10 to 20 years, Dweik added, more sensitive technology has allowed scientists to detect specific particles in the breath. These particles have led researchers to identify a number of serious health problems using breath, from digestive issues to colon cancer and even tuberculosis.
And the research continues. A study published today in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) found that breath tests might be able to identify people who are more likely to develop obesity by detecting a combination of gases that signals a specific microorganism living in the gut.
For the study, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles analyzed the breath of 792 participants and found that those with high concentrations of the gases methane and hydrogen had significantly higher body mass indexes (BMIs) and higher percentages of body fat than those whose breath had the normal mix of gases or a high concentration of either methane or hydrogen alone.
Elevated concentrations of methane and hydrogen together can be traced back to what's happening in the gut, according to the researchers. Methane is associated with a microorganism called Methanobrevibacter smithii, or M. smithii. Too much M. smithii, according to the researchers, makes weight gain more likely.
"Usually, the microorganisms living in the digestive tract benefit us by helping convert food into energy," said the study's lead author, Ruchi Mathur, MD, in a release from Cedars-Sinai, where he is the director of the Diabetes Outpatient Treatment and Education Center in the Division of Endocrinology. "However, when this particular organism -- M. smithii -- becomes overabundant, it may alter this balance in a way that causes someone to be more likely to gain weight," Mathur said.
Excess M. smithii sets off a reaction that makes a person store more calories from the food they eat, causing them to gain weight.
The Cedars-Sinai study is the first to make a connection between gas production and body weight, potentially identifying people prone to obesity via their breath. Not all breath tests can be used predictively just yet, said Dweik, but that is the hope.
"These studies you're hearing about are the basis for the future, what we call point-of-care, with testing in the office or clinic and eventually at home," he said. "People would have said that was impossible a few years ago."
"Breathalyzers May Soon Predict Heart Failure, Obesity" originally appeared on Everyday Health.