1. Please give a summary of your research.
In Australia, cancer kills more than 45,000 each year. Globally the numbers are astronomical – more than 8 million deaths annually. Yet, many of these deaths can be avoided by early detection of the disease. In fact, cancer itself is not a killer… it is its late detection that takes lives! By the time doctors usually discover cancer using traditional blood tests it is often too late. Most cancers are at an advanced stage when they are first found, by which time, the disease is essentially incurable. For example, if lung cancer is detected at stage 4, the chance of recovery is less than 6%.
What if we could change that? What if, with just a puff of your breath, we could detect cancer at its earliest stages to bring the chance of survival up to 85%? My research lies at the intersection of science, technology and engineering to discover new ways to detect disease earlier and easier than ever before. In much the same way as a police officer can detect if you are drunk with a breath analyser, it is possible – in the very near future – that we can detect diseases with a simple, non-invasive and quick breath test. The possibilities are huge and extend beyond cancer to an array of diseases including liver and kidney disorders.
2. Please include any additional details you would like to share
The idea of detecting disease by analysing human breath is not a new idea. In 400 BCE, Hippocrates mentioned that breath aroma could be related to disease. Later, scientists realized that there are thousands of organic compounds in human breath that can be potentially related to diseases. This means that, instead of blood testing which is invasive, painful, lengthy and expensive, we can breathe onto a sensor and get the results in a minute.
However, it’s not as easy as it looks. An example is acetone, which is a well-known biomarker for diabetes, but the acetone concentration difference between healthy people and patients is only parts per billion! It is similar to finding a drop of dye in an olympic-size swimming pool. Before nanotechnology, it was impossible to detect this tiny concentration with precision but today, we can make fingertip-sized nanosensors with an accuracy of 100 times higher than what we need.
The detection mechanism is based on a chemical reaction between the biomarker in your breath and the surface of my sensor, resulting in a change in electrical properties of the sensor. The more biomarker in your breath, the larger electrical change in my sensor.
My focus in this field is to fabricate a single chip device made up of several sensors - each of them sensitive to a particular biomarker - to diagnose several diseases in your body with just a puff of your breath!
The implications of this research will be enormous. From cancer to diabetes, a range of diseases will be able to be detected instantly and painlessly. Early detection will significantly raise the survival rate from these diseases – reducing mortality, morbidity and suffering. It will also ease financial burden on increasingly strained health systems by decreasing the volume and regularity of blood testing and reducing the number of chronically-ill patients.