One of the main ways of diagnosing a wide range of diseases is with a blood test. It is a simple enough procedure, but one which many people, especially those with trypanophobia (fear of needles), would prefer to avoid if they could.
For those so afflicted, there is good news – a less invasive test is on its way to market. Developed by Prof Tony Killard, former principal investigator at the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute in DCU, it simply requires patients to breathe into a tube. The test then measures their breath ammonia; this has been shown to be as effective as blood tests in identifying a range of diseases.
“Initial clinical evaluations have shown that ammonia measurements have the same level of accuracy as standard blood-based tests when it comes to detecting liver and kidney function, a critical indicator of a range of disease conditions,” Killard says. “Our test, which uses advanced, nanotechnology-based sensors to detect and measure trace levels of ammonia in the breath, is painless to perform and an immediate alternative to taking blood samples.”
Killard, who currently holds the chair of biomedical sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol, has now formed a company, BreathDX, to commercialise the technology, which has been licensed from Dublin City University.
“At the moment, breath-ammonia monitoring is rare due to the cost and complexity associated with the detection instruments,” he says. “The device being developed by BreathDX is smaller than a shoe box and can be miniaturised further into a portable device similar to the common alcohol breathalyser.”
Killard came up with the idea for the product while investigating new sensor materials based on novel nanomaterial technology. “To be honest, initially we were a solution looking for a problem,” he says.
“We had developed this new ammonia-sensing material, which was not only more sensitive than any other material yet produced, but could also be mass-manufactured using low-cost printing technology. This brought it into the realm of new applications in the biomedical sector that had not been accessible before.”
The development of the technology was supported by Enterprise Ireland from the off and Killard estimates the costs involved to date at around €900,000. BreathDX has now raised a further €1.4 million to drive the launch and initial growth of the business.
DCU’s Invent enterprise centre, which has licensed the technology, has an equity stake in the company. The diagnostic unit is being designed and fabricated in Shannon.
BreathDX has begun hiring staff and will sell initially to the diagnostics and R&D sectors both of which are global in nature. It expects to bring its product to market next spring, with its first self-use device for specific medical conditions due to be released within the next two years.
“We will go with the R&D market first and offer the instrument to scientists, clinicians and researchers to allow them to study and develop its use in a range of applications,” Killard says. “In the meantime, BreathDX is focused on validating it in a specific disease context and addressing that opportunity before embarking upon investigating its application in other conditions.
“There is no real direct competitor for our product in the market at present. There are a number of other companies attempting to exploit ammonia-measurement technology for diagnostic purposes, but none appears to be particularly effective. However, we can’t be complacent and we intend to establish ourselves as the market leader in this field as quickly as possible.
“When we are on top of the ammonia measurement market, we will turn our attention to the measurement of other trace breath gases for the non-invasive monitoring of other diseases, including potentially diabetes. Now that would be a big market opportunity.”