A group of Harvard and MIT students have created a lung cancer breathalyzer system

MIT lung cancer breathalyzer
Graham Lieberman, Jay Kumar, Alexander Blair, and Joseph Azzarelli of Astraeus Technologies accept their $100,000 grand prize from MIT. Michael Last/MIT
Today’s connotation of a breathalyzer test isn’t exactly the most positive: Did you blow beneath a 0.08? Great. But all that could soon change thanks to a team of entrepreneurs from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taking the concept of the dreaded test to anticipate rather than test for dangerous situations, a group of students have developed a breathalyzer capable of detecting early stages of lung cancer. Earlier this week at MIT’s 27th annual Entrepreneurship Competition, Astraeus Technologies won a $100,000 grand prize for its L CARD (Chemically Actuated Resonate Device), a postage stamp-sized device capable of detecting certain gases that could indicate the presence lung cancer.

The device works just like a traditional breathalyzer, requiring users to blow on its sensor. But what happens after is very different indeed: A companion mobile app will turn a smartphone screen red should the device detect suspicious gases, and green in their absence.

In demonstrations, inventor Joseph Azzarelli, an MIT doctorate student in chemistry, showed how the breathalyzer reacted to a spray from a syringe of lung cancer-signaling gases onto the device. The smartphone screen turned red. “The L CARD reacts and sends instantaneous information to the physician that further attention is required,” Azzarelli said.

The L CARD picks up on specific volatile organic compounds that science has shown are uniquely present in lung cancer patients. These compounds modify the L CARD’s radio frequency identification signal, and this signal tells the smartphone whether to turn red or green.

Jay Kumar, a student at Harvard Medical School, says that these devices are about 10 times more accurate than CT scans, and are incredibly cheap to boot. While CT scans cost about $800 a pop, this breathalyzer requires less than $1 to make, and Astraeus plans to sell the L CARDS directly to hospitals for use in regular exams.

“We’re going after lung cancer,” Kumar said. “The root cause is bad screening: We’ve developed a better screening test, and it’s cost effective.”

The team says that it plans on using its $100,000 in prize money for product development and first-round clinical trials in area hospitals.

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