MANASSAS, Va. — The science unfolding inside this one lab is breathtaking.
“We were starting to get into human breath analysis and we were starting to look at, ‘What kind of diagnostics can we get from that?’” said Dr. Robin Couch. “And then COVID came.”
Dr. Couch is a professor of biochemistry at George Mason University. Along with Dr. Allyson Dailey, they have developed a potentially new way to detect COVID in someone who is infected.
All it takes is breathing into a bag.
“We're able now to differentiate between those who have been confirmed COVID positive from those who are COVID negative,” Dr. Dailey said. “And so, it's been a pretty exciting time for us.”
With help from Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, a nearby hospital, they collected samples of patients' breath to see if they could detect whether or not someone had COVID.
“You're just kind of blowing into an airtight bag,” said Sentara’s Heather Casseaux. “And so, our nurses were trained to do that at Sentara as part of the study.”
She said nurses there also administered FDA-approved nasal swab tests for later comparison.
“This is just another alternative and it's not an invasive test to do,” Casseaux said of the test developed at GMU.
Researchers say the test is also easy for those who are taking it.
“It's quick,” Dr. Dailey said. “It takes about two minutes to blow up our bags. That's just like blowing up a balloon.”
And the results?
“We found that from the exhale, we could actually tell the difference between patients that do not have COVID from those that did,” Dr. Couch said.
The test had an accuracy of 100%, they said.
While it’s not FDA-approved yet, researchers are now looking into whether this type of breath analysis could be used to detect other diseases, like lung cancer.
“Others have done diseases, even such as schizophrenia. You can actually, in Parkinson's disease, even have been implicated in scent profiles,” Dr. Couch said. “So, really, a lot of surprising diseases you might not have thought of, can actually be detected using breath or exhale.”
They are now working on a full-body, patent-pending device, where much more of a person’s scent could be captured for a wider analysis of diseases.
“Even growing up in the era of CSI and things like that, you're always excited about coming in and trying to figure something out and learn new techniques,” Dr. Dailey said. “We're able to try to push the science forward, and we're able to find new ways and new creative ways then to help people in the end.”
Their test is a potentially powerful tool that may be just a breath away.