This breath test can detect liver disease earlier
Every year, around two million people worldwide die of liver disease. While some people inherit the disease, it’s most commonly caused by hepatitis, obesity and alcoholism. These underlying conditions kill liver cells, causing scar tissue to form until eventually the liver cannot function properly. Since 1979, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400 percent.
The sooner the disease is detected, the more effective treatment can be. But once symptoms appear, the liver is already damaged. Around 50 percent of cases are diagnosed only after the disease has reached the final stages, when treatment is largely ineffective.
To address this problem, Owlstone Medical, a biotech company in England, has developed a breath test that can detect liver disease earlier than conventional approaches. Human breath contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that change in the first stages of liver disease. Owlstone’s breath test can reliably collect, store and detect VOCs, while picking out the specific compounds that reveal liver disease.
“There’s a need to screen more broadly for people with early-stage liver disease,” says Owlstone’s CEO Billy Boyle. “Equally important is having a test that's non-invasive, cost effective and can be deployed in a primary care setting.”
The standard tool for detection is a biopsy. It is invasive and expensive, making it impractical to use for people who aren't yet symptomatic. Meanwhile, blood tests are less invasive, but they can be inaccurate and can’t discriminate between different stages of the disease.
In the past, breath tests have not been widely used because of the difficulties of reliably collecting and storing breath. But Owlstone’s technology could help change that.
The team is testing patients in the early stages of advanced liver disease, or cirrhosis, to identify and detect these biomarkers. In an initial study, Owlstone’s breathalyzer was able to pick out patients who had early cirrhosis with 83 percent sensitivity.
Boyle’s work is personally motivated. His wife died of colorectal cancer after she was diagnosed with a progressed form of the disease. “That was a big impetus for me to see if this technology could work in early detection,” he says. “As a company, Owlstone is interested in early detection across a range of diseases because we think that's a way to save lives and a way to save costs.”
How it works
In the past, breath tests have not been widely used because of the difficulties of reliably collecting and storing breath. But Owlstone’s technology could help change that.
Study participants breathe into a mouthpiece attached to a breath sampler developed by Owlstone. It has cartridges are designed and optimized to collect gases. The sampler specifically targets VOCs, extracting them from atmospheric gases in breath, to ensure that even low levels of these compounds are captured.
The sampler can store compounds stably before they are assessed through a method called mass spectrometry, in which compounds are converted into charged atoms, before electromagnetic fields filter and identify even the tiniest amounts of charged atoms according to their weight and charge.
The top four compounds in our breath
In an initial study, Owlstone captured VOCs in breath to see which ones could help them tell the difference between people with and without liver disease. They tested the breath of 46 patients with liver disease - most of them in the earlier stages of cirrhosis - and 42 healthy people. Using this data, they were able to create a diagnostic model. Individually, compounds like 2-Pentanone and limonene performed well as markers for liver disease. Owlstone achieved even better performance by examining the levels of the top four compounds together, distinguishing between liver disease cases and controls with 95 percent accuracy.
“It was a good proof of principle since it looks like there are breath biomarkers that can discriminate between diseases,” Boyle says. “That was a bit of a stepping stone for us to say, taking those identified, let’s try and dose with specific concentrations of probes. It's part of building the evidence and steering the clinical trials to get to liver disease sensitivity.”
Sabine Szunerits, a professor of chemistry in Institute of Electronics at the University of Lille, sees the potential of Owlstone’s technology.
“Breath analysis is showing real promise as a clinical diagnostic tool,” says Szunerits, who has no ties with the company. “Owlstone Medical’s technology is extremely effective in collecting small volatile organic biomarkers in the breath. In combination with pattern recognition it can give an answer on liver disease severity. I see it as a very promising way to give patients novel chances to be cured.”
Improving the breath sampling process
Challenges remain. With more than one thousand VOCs found in the breath, it can be difficult to identify markers for liver disease that are consistent across many patients.
Julian Gardner is a professor of electrical engineering at Warwick University who researches electronic sensing devices. “Everyone’s breath has different levels of VOCs and different ones according to gender, diet, age etc,” Gardner says. “It is indeed very challenging to selectively detect the biomarkers in the breath for liver disease.”
So Owlstone is putting chemicals in the body that they know interact differently with patients with liver disease, and then using the breath sampler to measure these specific VOCs. The chemicals they administer are called Exogenous Volatile Organic Compound) probes, or EVOCs.
Most recently, they used limonene as an EVOC probe, testing 29 patients with early cirrhosis and 29 controls. They gave the limonene to subjects at specific doses to measure how its concentrations change in breath. The aim was to try and see what was happening in their livers.
“They are proposing to use drugs to enhance the signal as they are concerned about the sensitivity and selectivity of their method,” Gardner says. “The approach of EVOC probes is probably necessary as you can then eliminate the person-to-person variation that will be considerable in the soup of VOCs in our breath.”
Through these probes, Owlstone could identify patients with liver disease with 83 percent sensitivity. By targeting what they knew was a disease mechanism, they were able to amplify the signal. The company is starting a larger clinical trial, and the plan is to eventually use a panel of EVOC probes to make sure they can see diverging VOCs more clearly.
“I think the approach of using probes to amplify the VOC signal will ultimately increase the specificity of any VOC breath tests, and improve their practical usability,” says Roger Yazbek, who leads the South Australian Breath Analysis Research (SABAR) laboratory in Flinders University. “Whilst the findings are interesting, it still is only a small cohort of patients in one location.”
The future of breath diagnosis
Owlstone wants to partner with pharmaceutical companies looking to learn if their drugs have an effect on liver disease. They’ve also developed a microchip, a miniaturized version of mass spectrometry instruments, that can be used with the breathalyzer. It is less sensitive but will enable faster detection.
Boyle says the company's mission is for their tests to save 100,000 lives. "There are lots of risks and lots of challenges. I think there's an opportunity to really establish breath as a new diagnostic class.”
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.