About 300 million people suffer from asthma worldwide, which results in swelling of tissue in the lungs that results in restricted breathing. It is just one of many conditions that cause inflammation of lung tissue, which can lead to expensive medical treatment, hospitalization, and even death. Current non-invasive methods for detecting this inflammation are bulky and expensive, and are typically limited to hospitals and other clinical settings.

Researchers at Rutgers University chose to focus on nitrite as a potential biomarker to indicate inflammation in the respiratory system. They wanted to create a small sensor that could be incorporated in a wearable or other mobile device, so that patients could monitor their own conditions. They created a sensor based on graphene, the form of carbon in one-atom-thick sheets. By blowing into a device, the patient’s breath would be carried past the sensor which can measure nitrite levels. This could give a patient an early indication of increased inflammation, so that they could adjust their medication or activity level accordingly.

The researchers hope to have this technology ready for commercial production within five years. They also are investigating other biomarkers that could be detected by the system. This new technology could help patients monitor and manage asthma, COPD, or allergies more effectively.