Breathe Free and Get Rich: A Gift From Space

[Ed. Note: Our resident tech guru, Stephen Petranek, follows both the medical tech sector and space exploration very closely, and his written several reports on each. But today, he’s found a unique way these two markets intersect… and how they could make you very wealthy. Read on…]

Here’s a one-question quiz: Other than good preventive behaviors like eating well and getting plenty of exercise, what’s the best way to live a long, healthy life?

The answer isn’t terribly obvious — early diagnosis of disease. Your chance of withstanding a killer malady approaches 100% if you know about it soon enough.

The rub is we’re absolutely terrible at finding disease early.

Despite everything from CT scans to mammograms to blood tests, we’re still in a primitive world that rarely discovers disease until something hurts or a system starts to shut down.

Think about it…

Medical checkups once a year are a smart thing to do, but they rely almost completely on blood work and basic observation by the physician.

Take the EKG, for example. My doctor doesn’t even bother with it anymore.

“It tells me something only after it goes wrong,” she says. Instead, she now sends me for a treadmill stress test every few years. It can reveal problems like clogging of arteries before I get even a small heart attack that goes unnoticed.

We could do so much better.

And the irony is that the solution to detection of most deadly diseases is technology we already possess. We just haven’t used it.

That is about to come to an end because one kind of technology that got its start in the space business — like so many others — is trickling into the marketplace…

Groundbreaking innovations often occur when two completely different disciplines come face to face. In this case, it’s space exploration and medicine.

The result will likely be the most amazing diagnostic achievement in all of medical history. (I’m passionate about new discoveries in the marketplace, and I express my enthusiasm, but I tend to avoid overstating possibilities. Nonetheless, I’m comfortable repeating that this could be the greatest medical achievement in history.)

Let me show you what I mean…

I’m going to jump ahead for a moment into a scenario likely to take place about five years from now:

It’s checkup time, and you go to the doctor’s office.

She gives you one test, and one test only.

She asks you to breathe into a puffy plastic bottle connected to a machine about the size of a shoe box.

That’s right, just breathe — the same thing you do 18,000 times a day.

Breathe out. Breathe into the device.

All but about 1% of what you breathe out will be the same gases you breathed in, minus most of the oxygen, of course.

But what a difference that other 1% can make when it comes to knowing exactly how your body is performing!

Suppose, for example, that your heart is failing, but it’s not obvious yet.

“The result will likely be the most amazing diagnostic achievement in all of medical history.”

Perhaps you’ve had a tiny heart attack that caused some chest pain, but you toughed it out — it wasn’t scary enough to get you into an emergency room.

That will show up in your breath.

It will show up as pentane and acetone, two hydrocarbons produced by the body when your heart develops weakness.

It will also show up if you’ve just walked into an emergency room with chest pains. Or suppose you are developing liver disease, but you’re months, if not years, away from feeling lousy enough to find a doctor and complain.

That will show up in your breath too, as trimethylamine.

Your body uses an enzyme to remove naturally occurring trimethylamine, but the enzyme diminishes when your liver starts going south. Both of these phenomena are well known to Dr. Raed Dweik at the Cleveland Clinic.

He’s a pulmonologist with an interest in breath analysis and a founding member of the Journal of Breath Research.

About a year ago, Dweik published a paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in which he noted:

“Acute decompensated heart failure (ADHF) is the most common indication for hospital admission, particularly in the elderly, yet the identification of those with impending decompensation using conventional clinical methods is unreliable and frequently leaves insufficient lag time for therapeutic interventions.”

Allow me to translate:

People walk into the emergency room with chest pains, but it takes hours for clinicians to get all the tests done to see if they have the most common type of heart failure, and before they figure it out, someone often dies. Or they don’t figure it out at all.

Dweik theorized that those patients had breath “signatures” that could identify their malady quickly and easily.

So he and his team recruited 25 patients who had just been admitted to the hospital with ADHF as their diagnosis. Sixteen similar patients (body mass index, sex, etc.) served as a control group who were not admitted with an ADHF diagnosis but were admitted with suspicion of other heart malfunctions.

He had all of them breathe into a breath analyzer.

After computing the results, he found that he could identify the heart failure patients with 100% accuracy.

Since then, he has proved that the test is completely reliable by testing more patients.

His work shows that elevated levels of pentane and acetone in their breath positively diagnose these patients every time.

Now, imagine all the heart failure patients in emergency rooms across the globe waiting for all kinds of blood tests and further decision making before they can receive proper treatment, which, in their cases, would work a lot better the sooner they got it.

If every hospital could simply have every emergency room patient breathe into a tube and know within seconds what was wrong with them, far more people would exit the hospital on their own two feet.

Dweik hasn’t stopped with heart disease.

He recently wrote in another journal that breath tests he has conducted on patients identified precursors to liver failure 90% of the time.

Meanwhile, other researchers are diving into the field.

New experimental breath tests for lung cancer appear to be 80% accurate.

Breath tests among patients with cancer of the larynx show that they have elevated levels of the hydrocarbons ethanol and 2-butanone.

Tests on 250 patients with tuberculosis last year looking for compounds that are emitted by TB bacteria showed that the disease could be predicted with 80% accuracy.

Other researchers are convinced there’s a signature breath test for breast cancer tumors that are too small to show up on mammograms.

But that’s just scratching the surface.

The kind of machine that can detect just one molecule of 2-butanone among a billion other molecules is called a mass spectrometer.

A mass spectrometer is a very complicated piece of equipment that produces a very simple result. It works by measuring the mass-to-charge ratios of samples that are ionized (that gain a charge) by being sprayed with a stream of electrons. The ionized particles are accelerated through a magnetic field that deflects them, depending on their mass and charge, into a detector that sorts them by quantity and thus determines what’s in the sample.

It is one of the great achievements of the 20th century, and three scientists have won Nobel Prizes for developing it and perfecting it. A mass spectrometer can identify all the elements or molecules in any sample you put into it.

But a mass spectrometer is expensive, cumbersome and tricky.

When I was in college, a mass spec, as we called it, took up an entire room, and it was delicate. Almost anything — from current fluctuations to too much humidity in the air — could ruin results. Preparing samples was difficult — even the contamination of a few parts per billion of anything could give false readings. It sucked up huge quantities of electricity and required lots of prep and a really clean environment. I had a friend at Johns Hopkins majoring in physics when I was in graduate school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he built a mass spectrometer. It took a year after he built it to get it to work.

Mass specs have become less fussy and more reliable since my days in college, but most have been the size of a refrigerator, require focus and attention and demand a lot of electricity. They’re also incredibly expensive. A basic device starts at $100,000 and can easily exceed $1 million.

But no longer.

Our team is currently researching a company that’s making mass spectrometers easy to use, portable and capable of running on a battery.

Up to this point, the mass spectrometer has mostly been used as a research and laboratory tool.

But the possible uses of a more mobile mass spectrometer boggle the mind.

For example, an ethnobotanist working with shamans in tribes in the Amazon to identify medicinal plants could make his work far more productive by being able to analyze barks, roots and leaves in a portable mass spectrometer at the site, instead of trying to preserve samples until he gets to a lab in the First World. Plants can change their chemical composition as they wither.

Or imagine a truck overturns in your neighborhood and spills some green slimy chemical that no one can identify. Instead of waiting days for a sample to be analyzed, a hazmat crew armed with a portable mass spectrometer could clean up the spill long before things went terribly wrong.

To be able to know what’s in every rock, every leaf, every cubic centimeter of air and every ounce of water is as powerful as the concept of GPS — being able to know where you are anywhere on Earth at any moment. In fact, portable mass spectrometers designed to identify elements anywhere will probably geolocate with a built-in GPS.

I think the potential for what good mass spectrometry that’s portable and cheap can do is almost beyond the limits of our imagination. Stay tuned for more…


Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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