Might breath be the way diabetes sufferers say goodbye to finger pricks for measuring blood glucose levels? Don’t hold yours just yet, but researchers at Canada’s University of Waterloo have created a diabetes-monitoring device that uses gas sensors to measure breath and detect biomarkers that indicate a person’s blood sugar level. Developed in conjunction with the Brazilian startup OrientaMED, the device then sends the data to an app on a mobile device via Bluetooth. The research team is preparing for clinical trials and has an eye on hitting the consumer market in 2023.

But can breath biomarkers serve as good stand-ins for blood-based biomarkers? It’s complicated. Because the simple breath we exhale is incredibly complex, full of a myriad of gas-phase organic and inorganic compounds. Each breath contains hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with distinct chemical natures in trace amounts, with aerosols in the forms of particles and water vapors. Detecting these individual compounds and determining their unique specificity has thus far been something of a white whale in medical technology. Though there has been promising research showing that chemical compounds in human breath can be used to diagnose diseases, reveal environmental exposures, and detect metabolic activity. 

Some significant backers are betting on the research team’s work; health-tech companies, Brazil, and the European Union have all given support to the fledgling breath-based diabetes monitor. And the device was a winner in the Concept 5K Challenge, a bi-annual competition sponsored by the University of Waterloo in which hundreds of teams pitch products or ventures. 

While the device is specifically intended for diabetes monitoring, the team’s initial research was broader, looking for ways to detect a variety of diseases by measuring breath with gas sensors. University of Waterloo researcher Nathalia Nascimento says, “There are many possible uses for the same technology. [But] so many people are living with diabetes and have to go through an uncomfortable daily routine. Our product is hopefully going to make things a little easier.”