Scientists Design Breath Sensor Device to Detect and Monitor Diabetes

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University of Pittsburgh chemists have come up with a breath sensor that's designed to detect and monitor diabetes. Although they have yet to test the prototype on humans, they see a major potential impact of their discovery on both undetected diabetics and those who dread the continual monitoring the condition requires.

The scientists were motivated by the ability of some diabetics to sense a fruitlike odor on their breath even before measuring blood sugar levels, according to Medical News Today. They published the findings from their research in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Diabetes is actually an umbrella term for several conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it a disorder in which the body is unable to process food correctly to make energy. Most of the food a diabetic eats becomes glucose, or sugar.

In patients with diabetes, insulin manufactured by the pancreas helps glucose move into cells of the body. A shortage of insulin or a disruption in how the body uses it leads to a buildup of sugars in the blood.

Type 1 diabetics represent 5 to 10 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes. Since their bodies don't produce insulin, they must get the hormone via pump or injection. Patients with type 2 diabetes typically experience an inability to use insulin properly as the initial disorder. Over time, the pancreas loses the capability to make the hormone. Individuals with gestational diabetes suffer from glucose intolerance linked to pregnancy.

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse indicates that in 2010, nearly 26 million Americans at least 20 years old were either diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetics. This represents 11.3 percent of the age group.

The Pittsburgh chemists designed a sensor that's a type of stick device, like a fruit pop. They combined titanium oxide, frequently used in personal care items such as makeup, and carbon nanotubes, which skewered the particles together. Nanotubes are smaller than silicon-based electronics and also stronger than steel.

Researchers were able to come up with a sensor device by using the combination as an electrical semiconductor, then measuring electrical resistance in the form of a signal from the sensor. They determined that light would activate the sensor, causing it to emit an electrical charge. After heating the nanotubes in the sensor device with ultraviolet light, the chemists were able to measure resulting acetone vapors.

The measurements were precise enough to convince the team that their device potentially had excellent capabilities for diagnosing diabetes and for monitoring blood sugar levels. As a result of their findings, they are designing a sensor prototype that they hope to test soon on human subjects. When commercially available, the breath sensor should be easy to use, noninvasive, and inexpensive.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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