No one likes the annoying pinpricks and needles used so often diagnostic tests. We’ve written in the past about other projects to develop breath analyzers to detect diabetes. Researchers at Oxford University also have been working on a handheld unit to diagnose diabetes for years. Their work was recently validated in a study published in Analytical Chemistry. The Oxford team, lead by Professor Gus Hancock of Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry worked with a university spin-off firm, Oxford Medical Diagnostics to develop the prototype device used in the published study.

The challenge was to find a way to accurately measure the sweet, fruity smell in the breath of people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) early enough to start treatment before the condition gets even worse. The smell, which comes from acetone, correlates highly with a blood ketone which is a precursor of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) that can be dangerous and even fatal if not checked. The Oxford handheld device has a 7 cm long optical cavity that captures the acetone from breath. While in the cavity, which acts as an optical sensor, the acetone is concentrated and probed by a near-infrared diode laser. Validated tests so far have shown that by measuring the acetone level with high degree of precision, the measure correlates with ketone levels closely enough to accurately determine ketone danger levels.

Further study is required, which Professor Hancock’s team is going to carry on in collaboration with the Oxford Hospitals Trust. While this diagnostic technology will help identify new T1D patients, it doesn’t help diabetics who have to test their blood glucose at least daily. Separate work at Cambridge University is ongoing with detecting isoprene to alert patients of hypoglycemia.