An electronic nose to sniff out our diseases

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French researchers have developed an artificial nose capable of measuring the concentration of ammonia in the breath. The objective of this device for medical use is to provide personalized follow-up for patients with chronic renal failure.

In France, around 6 million people suffer chronic renal failure. After a certain level of dysfunction, the kidneys cannot filter the blood at all, and the patient is faced with heavy treatment while waiting for a kidney transplant. Currently, the detection of this silent and progressive disease is carried out using blood or urine tests requiring complex equipment in a hospital environment. In order to facilitate the early diagnosis of renal failure, Institut Mines-Télécom de Lille Douai has developed an artificial nose which analyzes patients’ breath, explains Jean-Luc Wojkiewicz, teacher-researcher at the Institute’s engineering school.

« An artificial nose is a set of sensors that detect volatile or inorganic organic compounds. The goal of this research is to develop systems that are easy to use by physicians in their practice and capable of delivering results in real time. We have developed specific sensors to detect traces of ammonia molecules in the breath of patients, which are biomarkers in people with chronic kidney disease. ».

« But we also have another project with lthe Lille University Hospital called Pathacov to spot the warning signs of lung cancer. Detecting these diseases is very expensive today. The objective of artificial noses is to decentralize these medical tests carried out in hospitals to general practitioners in contact with their patients. Our devices, inexpensive and easy to use, could also be widely distributed to developing countries, in which the usual technologies and expensive for hospitals, are not present. The miniaturization of our prototypes on which we are working is a priority. For example, we are studying an application of an artificial nose in the military field to detect neurotoxicants. These electronic noses will come in the form of badges that will be installed on the soldiers’ uniform. »

Ultimately, electronic noses would make it possible to detect the first symptoms of any pathology and to establish a complete medical diagnosis from our breath. But the saga of these sniffer sensors don’t stop there. Researchers are also planning to develop artificial noses to identify the presence of bacteria and even determine the nature and concentration of virus in an enclosed area. Without forgetting, the development of ultra sensitive multifunction electronic noses which will react to the slightest pollutants, toxic and explosive vapors or can analyze the freshness of food. And within a few years, when they are sufficiently miniaturized, they will obviously integrate all of our smartphones.

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