Breathing Your Way to Better Health

By Mona Simpson

When you’re feeling sick, it’s unpleasant to visit the doctor and maybe get stuck with a needle and it’s even worse waiting for days for a lab result to tell you that you’re sick! Well, imagine if you could visit your doctor and just blow into a tube. They immediately receive the results, called a “breathprint,” and give a quick diagnosis. It sounds futuristic, but that future may be closer than you think.

Scientists had subjects breathe into a rubber tube that runs into a scientific instrument. They are able to match breathprints to the individuals who provided them.

Fingerprints of Breath

A team of researchers discovered that when you breathe out, the molecules in your breath are unique to your body and your health. Breathprints are the results of mass spectroscopy — the identification of chemical properties — of people’s breath. Mass spectroscopy uses electric and magnetic fields to separate and measure the molecules in a given sample. The scientists tested participants’ breath from different times of day and different days, and tried to see if they could reliably separate breathprints by the individual who provided them. They discovered that individuals’ breathprints varied somewhat depending on the day and the time of day, but that each person has a core signature in the breathprint that remains unchanged. Therefore, they can capture breathprints and match the results to the individual breather, just like with fingerprints.


Photo credit: Xue Li/Christine Khammash/ETH Zurich

The "breathprint" of a student giving a sample

Real-Life Applications

Breathprints may have a large impact on medical testing: they’re fast, easy, noninvasive and individual. They reflect the body’s metabolism, which varies from person to person, and may help physicians give personalized treatment to their patients. Doctors could use the results to determine what medicine a person has been taking, or if they have biomarkers for cancer. The speed of results is also an important factor. Because results are delivered in real-time, this technology can be used to test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs quickly and easily.

So, in the future when you’re feeling ill, maybe your doctor will order a breathprint test and you’ll already know and understand the benefits of the test.

Classroom Discussion

  • What else might it be convenient to identify in someone using breathprints?
  • Name some specific instances in which getting a test quickly can make a difference.