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Researchers build flu detector that can diagnose at a breath, no doctor required

The influenza virus is a sneaky little bugger. In most cases, you have no idea you’re infected with it until you start to show symptoms — and by that point, it’s too late. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of early-detection device that could tell us who is secretly harboring a virus before it spreads around the entire office?

Good news: That is precisely what researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have created with a prototype breathalyzer-style device capable of detecting flu in its early stages.

“What I have created — together with my research team and research collaborators working on this project — is a single exhale, portable, handheld, potentially wireless, battery-operated, inexpensive, breathalyzer that relies on gas-selective sensing elements, and which detects the presence and monitors the concentration of biomarkers in breath that signal a disease,” Perena Gouma, a professor in the university’s Materials Science and Engineering Department, told Digital Trends.

The specific biomarkers the breathalyzer looks for include traces of nitric oxide and ammonia, both of which can be measured using smart sensors.

University of Texas Arlington
University of Texas Arlington

“This particular breathalyzer detects flu virus infection,” she continued. “This is expected to be a personalized diagnostics tool available over the counter and it will allow the individuals to monitor their health, with the option of sharing the data obtained with their physician in real time.”

Gouma has previously developed other breathalyzers, for everything from asthma detection and diabetes monitoring to determining an endpoint for hemodialysis, the process of filtering waste products from the blood. The neat thing about breathalyzers, Gouma said, is that the technology involved can be easily modified to detect different diseases simply by changing the sensors.

In this example, for instance, it could be upgraded to instead test for Ebola.

“Use of the breathalyzer can make a significant different to catch an epidemic early and treat the sufferers, especially children and the elderly, in a timely manner,” Gouma explained. “It will also reduce the cost of healthcare.” Sadly nothing about providing germaphobe tech bloggers with a means to scrutinize sneezing colleagues, though.

As for when this technology may be available, Gouma said the team needs to carry out clinical trials, “but we are already exploring our options for commercializing this tool.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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