Smartphone Breathalyzer To Detect Early Stage Lung Cancers


The Scripps Translational Science Institute has partnered with a NASA-backed mHealth company called Vantage Health to market a device that connects to a smartphone and samples a users breathe, searching for key chemical compounds that are associated with lung cancer.

The company will use sophisticated NASA patented biosensors to power the device. In 2012, NASA’s Government Invention of the Year award was presented to the inventors of a new technology that can detect and identify trace amounts of chemicals in the air. The sensor was created to help medical staff monitor crewmembers working and living on the International Space Station by monitoring for key chemical biomarkers.


NASA has since granted Vantage Health 5-years of exclusive development rights to the technology, through its parent company Nanobeak. Vantage Health is working to deploy the technology as a smartphone-powered lung cancer screening tool. A breathalizer-like device will sample the chemicals in a users breathe, and analyze it for traces of key compounds associated with lung cancer. In 2012, there were more deaths from lung cancer than from prostate, pancreas, breast, and colon cancer combined. One contributing reason is that only 15 percent of lung cancers are detected at an early stage.

The sensor technology itself has far greater possible uses than just lung cancer screening. Other NASA teams are already applying the technology to assist with chemical detection efforts in an ongoing planetary exploration program. The sensor has also been tested and used to assist with leak detection and hazardous agent detection.

“With this invention, our people have basically created the insides of a tricorder, and based on the uses we’ve already demonstrated, I can’t wait to see the fantastic applications that NASA and industry are going to devise for it." – S. Pete Worden, NASA Ames center director.

Researchers with Vantage Health believe that the sensors will be capable of detecting not only early-stage lung cancer, but also colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer. Their initial goals center around marketing mobile-based products that support screening efforts in this area. Beyond cancer screening, Vantage Health claims that the sensors should be capable of screening for heart failure, diabetes, tuberculosis, and HIV/Aids.

The technology will be developed in partnership with mHealth guru Eric Topol’s Scripps Translational Science Institute. The press release announcing the partnership waxed poetic about the sweeping potential a technology like this would have on global health. However, it did not cite any actual studies that show reason to be overly optimistic that the new technology will be able to deliver on all, or any, of the applications imagined for it. NASA’s own website only describes the technology as being used to detect trace gases in astronauts, but does not specify what clinical conditions, if any, those gases may be linked to.

With only five years to develop and validate a functional product, Vantage Health and Dr. Topol have their work cut out for them, but if indeed they are successful, it would indeed be the most significant public health contribution from the mobile health sector to date.

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