Breathing Easy: The New Sensors That Could Combat Disease

Lifestyle diseases are on the rise in Japan and across the Asia-Pacific region. New technology that can quickly and accurately test for a range of symptoms could increase early diagnosis and encourage preventative treatment.

Japan has long been considered one of the world’s healthiest nations. In recent years however, Westernisation and greater economic prosperity have led the population to take up diets higher in fat and sugar, alongside more sedentary jobs.

Using the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) obesity benchmark of BMI ≥30, Japan’s obesity rate remains by far the lowest among developed countries. However, since the Japanese are especially susceptible to obesity, diabetes and elevated blood pressure, collectively known as metabolic syndrome, WHO’s Japanese obesity benchmark is BMI ≥25. By this measure, Japan’s obesity rate is 20% – more comparable to Western European countries – and rising, with a threefold increase between 1962 and 2002.

Japan’s society and economy are already burdened as the world’s oldest population continues to age, and the prospect of metabolic syndrome-related lifestyle diseases adding to this has prompted Japanese companies to develop technology aimed at simplifying and expediting testing and diagnosis.

Breath-taking Technology

Fujitsu's prototype breath sensor can display results on a smartphone
Fujitsu’s prototype breath sensor can display results on a smartphone

One such tool is breath analysis, which is one of the least invasive diagnostic tools available. It detects changes in the concentrations of exhaled volatile organic compounds which correlate to specific diseases, including those related to metabolic syndrome.

The drawback is its reliance on gas chromatography, an unwieldy process involving an expensive machine, a trained operator and a wait of several hours for results, which could deter those at risk from seeking diagnosis.

Fujitsu Laboratories in Japan has developed a portable breath sensor initially focused on diagnosing one of the nation’s most common cancers – stomach cancer, which poses an increased risk to those with metabolic syndrome. Fujitsu plans to explore its diagnostic capabilities for a range of other metabolic syndrome-related lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and even lung cancer.

The company hopes the convenience of the technology, which displays results quickly and can be displayed on a smartphone, will expedite testing and treatment times in hospitals, encouraging those at risk to seek diagnosis while preventative treatment is still feasible.

“In Japan, patients often experience long waits at clinics. If the breath is tested during that initial wait, the results could be used during the examination, improving the efficiency of diagnoses,” said Osamu Tsuboi, research manager at Fujitsu Laboratories’ Devices & Materials Laboratory.

Similar innovations elsewhere include MouthLab, which was developed at The Johns Hopkins University in the US and analyses saliva and breath samples to detect markers for health conditions. Israel-based Exalenz Bioscience is also developing a breath test that could assess liver function, while a tuberculosis breath analyser has been created in Britain.

The Path to Reliable Self-diagnosis

Self-diagnosis such as by using the Fujitsu sensor could bring huge benefits to patients, since self-testing is more flexible and convenient, and can be conducted in private. This also achieves faster results for those who might put off visiting the doctor.

People at risk of developing metabolic syndrome-related illnesses could have the reassurance of instant, regular checks. And with large numbers of people accurately testing themselves, hospital waiting lists could shrink.

With a response component measuring just 5mm2, the Fujitsu sensor also has strong mobile potential.

Tsuboi explained: “It may be possible to integrate a breath sensor with a smartphone. Or, when installed in a wearable device, it would become a means of targeting skin gases.”

Fujitsu is not the only developer pursuing wearable diagnostic technology. With Infra-V’s smartwatch, for instance, users can easily monitor their own blood glucose, heart health and more.

Another diagnostic tool has been developed by a team at the DNA Medical Institute in the United States called rHEALTH, which uses a smartphone app to diagnose hundreds of diseases in minutes using a single drop of blood.

Ultimately though, the success of mobile health technology will rely on users’ digital know-how, which could be challenging for elderly users.

Kantar Health Japan’s Ikumi Ikeda said: “The penetration of smartphones among senior citizens is low compared to the younger generation. Newly developed devices should be intuitive enough for senior people with several disorders to use them.”

Nonetheless, digital health tools could improve survival rates and reduce medical costs. Ikeda added: “Physicians will be able to understand patients comprehensively because they can access the reality outside the medical institute.”

With its long history of health and longevity now under threat from lifestyle diseases, the self-diagnostic capabilities of these new sensors may save lives as well as medical costs in ageing Japan.

Top image: Unhealthy diets and lifestyle choices are making Japanese citizens more prone to various diseases. (Credit: Itaru Hirama)

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