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Breath test to detect COVID-19 in development by IUPUI researchers

Dec 16, 2020

Imagine boarding an airplane, reporting to work in a high-rise office building or attending a sporting event with the knowledge that you and everyone else there absolutely do not have COVID-19, specifically those who are asymptomatic.

The blowing end of a Breathalyzer
COVID-19 could be detected immediately with a Breathalyzer-type device, and the ease and speed of the device could allow for scores of people to be tested in a short amount of time.Photo by Getty Images

Current testing mechanisms cannot guarantee that, but a breath-testing device similar to a Breathalyzer – which tests blood alcohol levels – potentially could. A team of IUPUI researchers, led by Mangilal Agarwal from the School of Engineering and Technology, is setting out to try to create such a device.

“When we came across an article four years ago that said dogs could alert people for hypoglycemia, we applied for funding through the National Science Foundation and started looking into what exactly the dogs were smelling and how to develop a breath-testing device to sense that smell,” Agarwal said.

The same methodology that went into that study might help in cracking the code for a COVID-19 breath-testing device. The knowledge the team gained proved advantageous in fall 2020 when the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense put out a call looking for such a device to instantly identify COVID-19.

Agarwal’s team is developing a sensor that would identify the scent in breath altered by COVID-19. That’s different from how alcohol Breathalyzers work, as they measure the level of alcohol in one’s breath, which correlates to alcohol in the blood.

“We have the unique perspective of identifying a signature. We’re looking at the metabolic pathways the virus causes, which can be identified,” Agarwal said, adding that they are collecting breath samples from people who have tested positive, including asymptomatically, and negative for COVID-19.

Portable blood-alcohol Breathalyzers that can be attached to a keychain can be purchased online for under $50, and Agarwal said that a similar device for COVID-19 could be just as inexpensive once in mass production.

Dog sniffing in a bucket as part of an experiment
The same methodology used in training dogs to sniff out prostate cancer molecules from urine samples can be used for the COVID-19 breath-testing device.Image from video by Indiana University

“This technology, or proof of it, could help not only with COVID-19 but with other infectious diseases,” he said.

Agarwal and his team are currently using trained dogs with the capability to sniff out prostate cancer molecules from urine samples, preventing unnecessary biopsies for patients.

IU Research

IU’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $854 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.


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John Schwarb

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