Steve Chambers and Amy Scott-Thomas from the Breath Research Group at the University of Otago, Christchurch tell Alison Ballance how they hope to use ‘breath’ as a non-invasive diagnostic tool for infectious diseases such as TB. Steve Chambers is an infectious disease physician for the Canterbury District Health Board, and he explains that it is difficult to get sputum samples from deep within the lung, so he had the idea of using breath as a diagnostic tool, as it is easily collected. Amy has been identifying aromatic compounds that are specific to infectious disease agents such as Aspergillus and Pseudomonas, and determining if they exist in sufficient quantities in breath to be analysed. Work has carried on in the last 2 years despite the disruption caused by the earthquakes in Christchurch - for the last few months Amy's lab has been located under a garden gazebo in what used to be the Christchurch Hospital cafe. The gazebo is to stop leaks reaching her equipment (pictured above right).
Previous research had showed that trained Gambian rats would identify compounds produced by TB, and Max Suckling from Plant and Food Research explains how honeybees could also be trained to detect diagnostic aromatic compounds in the breath samples, as they are the same volatile compounds produced by flowers. This work has been developed as a proof of principle but has not yet been used with clinical samples from patients.