A BG Breathalyzer?

Western New England University researchers announce they have created a device that detects acetone levels on the breath of people with diabetes.



Right now, having to blow into a breathalyzer usually spells trouble. But in the future, could people with diabetes rejoice at the possibility of using a breathalyzer every day?

Western New England University medicinal chemistry professor Dr. Ronny Priefer recently announced his team has been making progress on a breathalyzer that could detect BG levels for people with diabetes. Dr. Priefer’s team developed a multilayer technology using nanometer-thick films consisting of two polymers that react with acetone in the breath.  The acetone measurements can be calculated to determine BG levels.

Acetone is an organic compound that is found on the breath when the body runs low on insulin and burns fatty acids for energy. Everyone produces some amount of acetone in their breath, even if they still have insulin in their bloodstream, but people with diabetes produce 300 to 500 times more than the average amount of acetone in a given day.

In an interview with Insulin Nation, Dr. Priefer says the idea of a breathalyzer came to him during a water cooler conversation with a colleague about the reluctance of some people with diabetes to prick themselves to test BG levels.  That reluctance can lead to uncontrolled A1C and a lack of adhering to a treatment regimen.  The conversation stuck with Dr. Priefer, and he spent a weekend surfing the web to read up on less invasive ways to test BG.

He decided to focus on breathalyzers, but they had been tried before for people with diabetes.  For example, Dr. Priefer discovered a company that advertised a breathalyzer to hit the market in 2011, but it never materialized.  The achilles heel of these past breathalyzers was that they couldn’t handle the humidity in a person’s breath.  What was used to measure acetone, be it lasers or iron, reacted to the humidity, which corrupted the readings.

breathalyzer_prototype_300px
The prototype of the breathalyzer, seen here,
is as big as a book (box not included).

Dr. Priefer had been working with nanotechnology for the past few years, and was able to draw on the experience to create polymers that actually incorporate the humidity of breath to help the film to read acetone.

“Mine, actually uses the water to swell,” he says. “That’s the first thing that will happen.”

After creating the device, Dr. Priefer then showed it to a colleague, Dr. Michael Rust, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.  Rust soon saw that Dr. Priefer was using the most expensive material for the polymers, and he was able to suggest much more affordable material to make up the film.

“No person should work as an island,” Dr. Priefer says.

His team is now weighing avenues for seeking funding from grants, venture capital, and even Kickstarter to create prototypes that can be tested in the lab with human patients.  Then the breathalyzers will be sent home with patients to test in real-world settings.  One of the key things to determine will be how well the breathalyzer works at giving accurate readings when users are exposed to other sources of acetone, which can be found in everything from nail polish to cigarettes to apples.

Also, it remains to be seen whether the breathalyzer will work for all people with diabetes, or just T1s, T2s, or some subset of the two populations.  So far, there has been very limited scientific data to determine the viability of breathalyzer testing for all people with diabetes.  One of the few tests asked 3 people with diabetes to breathe into bags at home to measure acetone levels over a 24-hour period; the results came back wildly different.  One subject’s breath samples had acetone levels that corresponded exactly with BG levels, a second subject’s samples had one deviation, while the third batch had little correlation between acetone levels and BG levels.

Dr. Priefer believes there is too much possibility for human error in such a test. He says that even if the breathalyzer he’s created ultimately doesn’t pan out, he hopes the trial data it generates will provide better information on the viability of using acetone levels to measure BG in the future.

And that could mean a sigh of relief for people with diabetes who prick themselves every day.

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Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for Insulin Nation, Type 2 Nation, and Información Sobre Diabetes. He is now the community engagement and content manager for T1D Exchange.