One of the most common COVID-19 tests involves a long swab pressed deep into the nasal cavities – and while the test can be administered quickly, it has been described as unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Now researchers at The Ohio State University are working on a testing system that would require a simple exhaled breath. Perena Gouma is the primary investigator of a team developing a breathalyzer device that will sample breath for key biomarkers of the infection. She says it would serve as an alternative to current tests that are expensive, can take a long time to get results and require specialized personnel to do the sampling and to analyze the results.

Pelagia-Irene (Perena) Gouma

Gouma, director of the Advanced Ceramics Research Laboratory and professor in the College of Engineering, is working with co-investigator Andrew Bowman, associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine. The project was awarded a nearly $200,000 National Science Foundation EAGER grant this month under a program supporting exploratory, early-stage research on untested, but potentially transformative, ideas or approaches.

“Breath analysis is not really a technique that is used widely in the medical field yet, so it is considered early-stage work,” Gouma said. “[We] have a sensor device that detects nitric oxide and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in breath and can be used to tell you about the onset of an infectious disease.”

In addition to nitric oxide, the device examines two other metabolites that could specifically indicate the presence of a COVID-19 infection even in asymptomatic patients. Exhaling once in the breathalyzer may help with earlier detection of the onset of the disease, as well as with monitoring of the severity of the infection, which could help reduce the risk for worsening of the symptoms and allow timely therapeutic intervention, she said.

The new project builds upon Gouma’s invention of a hand-held breath monitor that may provide early detection of flu before symptoms appear prior to her arrival at Ohio State. The COVID-19 breathalyzer involves advances on nanomaterials for detecting specific breath gases at the concentrations of interest for making a diagnosis.

The breathalyzer gives results rapidly (15 seconds response time), it is extremely inexpensive, and it is easy to use so that there is no need for trained personnel to perform the test, Gouma said. The results can be viewed directly on the display or they can be transferred to the physician wirelessly.

“We are working on making these hand-held monitors that will be widely distributed and they’re very inexpensive,” she said. “The technology evolved from the sensors used for monitoring gases in an automotive exhaust – that’s how we started on breath analysis 20 years ago.”

Image Credit: NIAID/NIH/SPL

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