In a fifth-floor laboratory at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), research assistant Renee Cataneo is holding the day’s collection of human exhalations sent to Menssana Research, based at NJIT. Cataneo’s job is to analyze the results. Just as a Breathalyzer detects drunk drivers, a Menssana process detects illness.
“It’s the same concept, but about a billion times more sensitive,” said inventor Michael Phillips, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY. Since December 2002, Menssana Research has been a tenant in the Enterprise Development Center, an incubator program at NJIT for young businesses.
A week ago, the Wall Street Journal named Menssana Research in its annual technology innovation awards as the second runner-up for kudos in the biotechnology and medical section. (EDITOR'S NOTE: To interview Phillips either in his lab or by telephone, contact Sheryl Weinstein at 973-596-3436.)
In a patented process, samples are imbedded in activated carbon, sealed in cigarette-sized steel cylinders and then mailed to the lab for analysis. Menssana has identified distinct patterns made by more than 200 different volatile organic compounds exhaled in every breath. Phillips has proved that these patterns vary with illness and can be used to diagnose a variety of diseases.
“It’s more than folk medicine,” said Phillips. “Diabetics’ breath smells fruity because of acetones, patients in kidney failure have breath that smells like urine, and liver disease and lung infections also have distinctive odors.” But Phillips’ research has taken breath analysis way beyond the sniff test.
In February 2004, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of Menssana’s Heartsbreath test. The test determines whether patients with heart transplants are showing signs of rejecting the new heart. The FDA said the test might be used as an adjunct to biopsy. The Heartsbreath test costs $500, compared to thousands for a biopsy. More importantly, it is non-invasive and has no risks.
Phillips has also published research in peer-reviewed journals—including the prestigious medical journal, Chest—showing that the breath-test concept works to diagnose lung cancer, breast cancer, tuberculosis, and pre-eclampsia, a precursor of a life-threatening complication of pregnancy.
The principle behind his research is a bodily process called “oxidative stress.” That means that disease is associated with an increase in “free radicals,” molecules whose unpaired electrons make them highly reactive. Those free radicals damage the cell membrane, releasing the volatile organic compounds some of which ultimately are exhaled. Phillips came up with a way to use activated charcoal to capture these compounds, concentrate them with intense heat, and then use a gas chromatograph to separate the compounds and a mass spectrometer to identify them. The resulting graph will show a distinctive pattern that can determine health or illness, Phillips said.
The inventor also believes the breath analysis concept could screen for an almost limitless array of diseases. One of his tasks is deciding which ones to go after. “It’s completely safe, has virtually no false negative results, and it’s cheap,” he said.