No More Finger Pricks?

New research leads to promising test for diabetics

A new diagnostic breathalzyer could eliminate finger pricks.

Right now if you’re diabetic or even if your doctor suspects you are, you are looking at a lot of annoying, painful finger pricks to draw blood and test your glucose levels. Scientists at Oxford University may have good news for you and millions of others. They are developing a diagnostic Breathalyzer that could eliminate the need for blood tests.

The Oxford study was published in the American Chemical Society journal Analytical Chemistry under a title only recognizable by chemists: “Portable Device for Measuring Breath Acetone Based on Sample Preconcentration and Cavity Enhanced Spectroscopy.” How does that translate?

Medical professional and those “in the know” are aware that when untreated, diabetics can have a breath smell that is sweet and fruity. The smell indicates the presence of acetone, the same compound found in nail polish removers as well as some stain and paint removers. We produce acetone as a natural byproduct of metabolism. When there’s a lot of acetone in our breath, it can indicate ketoacidosis, which in turn can indicate insufficient insulin in the bloodstream to absorb glucose — a telltale sign of diabetes.

If your breath smells fruity, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re diabetic. There are so many other compounds in our breath that an accurate measure of acetone levels has traditionally required a large and expensive machine called a mass spectrometer. The prototype revealed in the Oxford study is a small, reusable handheld unit that concentrates exhaled breath in a cavity and then uses an on-board near-infrared laser to accurately measure the acetone level in the sample.

The study revealed that the Breathalyzer measurements across a wide range of concentrations were a “close match” to measurements from a mass spectrometer. This is a work in progress, but the team hopes that in the future, their device could be used for earlier detection of diabetes.

The device from the Oxford study is diagnostic in nature and won’t excuse diabetics from their own daily blood glucose tests, but another research group at the University of Cambridge is working on its own Breathalyzer, aimed at measuring the molecule isoprene in exhaled breath. If the Cambridge team is successful, diabetics could soon be able to avoid those finger pricks as well.