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NASA Looking to Spin Out Breath Analysis Platform for Use in Diagnostics Applications


NEW YORK – The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is considering partnerships to see an internally developed breath analysis platform adopted for diagnostics applications.

NASA originally developed its e-nose technology for monitoring environmental conditions during space missions, but increasingly it believes the platform could be used in the medical arena, according to David Loftus, an investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

"We are very interested in spinning out the technology for non-NASA applications," said Loftus. "NASA is very good at developing early-stage technologies, and ultimately for something like this to be used, partnership with a commercial entity would absolutely be required, and that is something that NASA does often with technology it develops. Certainly, the e-nose is no exception."

NASA has been developing its handheld e-nose for over a decade. Originally, it was designed to serve as a chemical sensor for detecting the presence of chemicals in the environment. An earlier version of the technology was employed at the International Space Station to monitor gaseous substances in the crew cabin in 2008 and 2009, for example. NASA is currently working with investigators at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, to develop medical applications for the e-nose.

The sensor element within the platform is based on carbon nanotubes, an aspect that Loftus said sets NASA's breath analysis technology apart from "virtually all e-nose technologies out there." As the carbon nanotubes consist of nanoscale materials and are highly sensitive due to their electrical properties, the e-nose can therefore detect gas-phase molecules of interest, Loftus said.

"It allows us to make our devices very small [and] compact and allows us to couple the sensor module to a smartphone," he noted. The sensor chips employed by the e-nose are also reusable, and the sensors can be scaled for manufacturing. "That allows the technology at a fundamental level to be inexpensive," said Loftus. 

Several articles have been published that discuss NASA's technology. A recent relevant paper appeared in 2019 in the journal Sensors and discusses the use of multiwall carbon nanotubes and an iron oxide nanocomposite-based sensor contained within a 1cm x 2 cm chip to detect carbon dioxide at room temperature. The paper also showcased the ability to run the assay using a smartphone sensing device.

Diagnostics is a newer area of interest for NASA, dating back only several years, Loftus said. Some initial health-related applications are relevant to NASA space travel, he noted, and target conditions that could affect astronauts in the space environment. These include pulmonary diseases that could be measured via breath, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, and even cancers of the lungs. But NASA is also interested in going beyond the lungs and believes the technology could provide insight into vascular diseases and other inflammatory conditions

"Some of those applications and targets have NASA relevance, but many of those have non-NASA relevance for terrestrial medicine and ordinary medical care," said Loftus. "We view both arenas for being important for our development efforts."

Infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, are also on NASA's radar. "Those types of applications are theoretically possible with the e-nose technology, something we are paying close attention to," said Loftus.

Take a deep breath

The field of breath-based analysis is more than 40 years old. According to Loftus, a starting point for the concept were breathalyzer tests used by law enforcement to detect alcohol in exhaled breath, which have been in use since the 1970s. At the same time, breath is a notoriously difficult sample to capture and analyze compared to other sample types, such as blood, urine, and saliva.

"Exhaled breath ... is harder to study than other fluids, like blood or urine, because the substances of diagnostic value are at much lower concentrations than other types of bodily fluids," noted Loftus. "We are so successful at publishing diagnostics using those other fluids that the driver for this new technology is not as strong as it might be in a conventional setting, such as a hospital or clinic, where we can obtain a blood specimen and take it to the lab for a very comprehensive analysis."

That situation might be changing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where breath-based tests have emerged as a potential tool for mass screening. Imec, a Belgian R&D organization, is developing a breath-based test for SARS-CoV-2 that relies on a silicon sensor coupled to quantitative PCR. Numerous teams in academia and industry are developing similar tests, though none has received regulatory clearance to offer one in a clinical setting.

According to Loftus, in order for NASA's platform to make it out of R&D, a commercial partner is a must, and it will take some time to realize any diagnostic ambitions. "It's many years of work that we are facing in the future to develop this, but timelines can change depending on what is discovered in the laboratory," said Loftus.

Should NASA's platform make it past these hurdles, Loftus said such a tool could be deployed in situations where a point-of-care platform is a necessity.

"I think the real driver for this technology is in clinical arenas where we don't have access to conventional medical technologies," Loftus said. Such settings could include developing countries, he noted, and other places where "resources are limited and patients can't get to a clinical laboratory, because those resources just don't exist."