Elevated carbon monoxide levels in breath can point to infection

Elevated levels of carbon monoxide in breath can help diagnose bacterial and other infections, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, believe. Interestingly, technology designed to test for air pollution led to the finding.

Their work, detailed in the journal PLoS ONE, is just the latest advance in the effort to use the chemical compounds in breath as diagnostic biomarkers for health conditions and diseases. Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich recently found that the chemical composition changed in the breath samples of people who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other illnesses. Cleveland Clinic researchers are testing a diagnostic that would identify heart failure patients by screening for higher levels of volatile organic compounds in their breath. Researchers in Israel, China and Latvia came up with nanomaterial-based technology that does something similar for gastric cancer. And the list goes on.

The UC Irvine researchers conducted their study on mice with bacterial blood infections. Through their use of a gas analysis method designed to measure air pollution, researchers found that the mice with more severe blood infections gave off much higher levels of carbon monoxide in their breath. Once researchers dosed the mice with antibiotics, the carbon monoxide levels in their breath went back down to normal.

The finding is promising enough that the team is pursuing a patent for its technique. If successful in humans, it would establish yet another way that the chemicals given off by breath can be used as a diagnostic tool. And the process worked quickly, showing the potential of using the technique for quick diagnosis in the emergency room, and, in turn, rapid treatment of the condition at hand.

Next, the research team plans to test its technique on human breath samples. For now, at least, the researchers are reveling in the progress they've made so far.

"Breath analysis has been showing promise as a diagnostic tool in a number of chronic diseases," co-author Alan Barbour, a UC Irvine professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and medicine, said in a statement. "This study provides the first evidence … that it can be used for rapid clinical assessment of infections, which can lead to prompt institution of effective treatments."

- read the release
- here's the study