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Northumbria University professor develops breath-collecting device that could change coronavirus diagnosis

An innovative breath-collecting device developed by academics at Northumbria University could revolutionise the way we diagnose diseases, including COVID-19.

Northumbria University has secured regional support and funding for the next stage of product and business development of the technology, which enables diagnosis of disease through breath collection.

Research shows that our breath contains valuable biological information, also known as biomarkers, that can indicate health and disease. Biomarkers such as DNA, RNA, proteins, and lipids found in the breath have diagnostic potential for diseases of the lung and beyond.

The new device allows sampling of the lung in a non-invasive way – by patients breathing into it – to retrieve these biomarkers.

It is hoped that in the future the technology could be used in the diagnosis of lung diseases as well as other health issues such as diabetes, cancers, liver problems, brain and ageing diseases.

Research and development of this technology was led by Dr Sterghios Moschos, associate professor at Northumbria University at Westminster University, and has been progressed further while at Northumbria University.

Dr Moschos explained: “Our ambition is to reduce the need for bloodletting for diagnosis in its broadest sense. The research evidence that shows this is possible is well established, what is missing is the standardised and reliable approach to do so outside the research lab: in pharmacies, GP surgeries or the back of an ambulance, for example.

“In the case of coronavirus, temperature monitoring in airports is not sufficient. The World Health Organisation currently recommends testing nasal swabs, oral swabs and swabs from inside the lungs to avoid missing the infection. That’s why it’s vital that we develop non-invasive, quick and cost-effective tests for diagnosis and screening.”

Development of the breath collecting device has been supported by funding from Northern Accelerator, which made it possible to bring together a team to create a functioning prototype of the device.

Northumbria graduate Saqib Ali, has been appointed as a design engineer for the project and has carried out the rapid prototyping of the innovative device using 3D printers within the University’s engineering labs.

The project has also been supported by North by Northwest partner’s Innovation to the Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) programme. ICURe support enabled the team to get out of the lab and speak to 144 key opinion leaders in-breath diagnostics in the US and EU. These conversations helped find a market for their technology and develop a plan to take the technology out of the university.

While the primary interest for the breath sampling device lies in human healthcare, but other opportunities exist in other industries such as veterinary medicine, biosecurity, agritech and food processing.