Analyzing the volatile compounds exhaled with each breath for insight into disease
CEO and co-founder: Billy Boyle
Based: Cambridge, U.K.
The scoop: The exhaled breath has often been interpreted as an element of a person’s spirit, vitality or life force. But there’s a scientific basis to the claim.
The lungs do more than simply exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide gas with every respiration. The entirety of a person’s blood can pass through them in just one minute—with over 1,000 volatile organic compounds, drawn from anywhere in the body, being carried out on the air.
Owlstone Medical aims to capture these compounds and interrogate them to create a snapshot of a person’s health, using a process it calls breath biopsy. By tracing certain chemicals back to underlying diseases, conditions or environmental exposures, the company is developing airborne biomarkers that can be used in a variety of research, clinical or occupational settings.
The process starts with its sample collection device: a small box attached to a breathing mask, containing sorbent metal tubes that passively soak up and stabilize the exhaled compounds. The boxes are then mailed to Owlstone’s laboratory in Cambridge, U.K., where they’re analyzed with gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and other technologies.
Breath-based biopsy is a young, growing field that’s beginning to get noticed, and it's made big strides in recent years through new publications and incorporations into Big Pharma clinical studies, according to Owlstone’s head of investor relations, Chris Claxton.
“I think the receptivity of the idea has shifted in just the last year, and it’s been led in a way by the liquid biopsy market,” Claxton said. “Top-flight, institutional investors are very much paying attention to the space that we're in right now. They want to learn more, and not just about breath itself—but also, now that a little more time has passed, that some of liquid biopsy’s challenges in early detection are starting to emerge.”
Breath-based biopsy has a certain advantage over liquid exams: If you’re searching for very small biomarkers related to early disease, such as in the low parts-per-billion or high parts-per-trillion ranges, you can take a larger, denser sample as long as your patient can breathe. The same can’t be said for a blood test.
“It’s generally frowned upon to exsanguinate somebody, let alone do it several times over, but in breath you can do that,” Claxton said. “You can sample the body 10 times over by taking a sample for 10 minutes.”
What makes Owlstone Medical fierce: The company has worked with institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Cancer Research UK and the National Health Service, as well as major drugmakers including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and Johnson & Johnson on biomarker discovery—not only in respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD, but also in liver and colorectal cancer.
In addition, Owlstone is currently conducting its own clinical trial in lung cancer, which aims to enroll 4,000 people and read out data on endogenous biomarkers at the end of this year or early 2021.
The company is also developing so-called exogenous biomarkers: chemical probes not found within the body that can be administered and tracked to provide clear signals on the health of metabolic processes.
This would include compounds on the FDA’s list of materials labeled Generally Recognized as Safe and used to measure the efficiency of the body’s drug metabolism and liver function, as well as to potentially help diagnose nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
The technology could also be used to gauge a person’s exposure to potential toxins in the workplace, according to the company, which participates in the European Union-funded Exposome Project for Health and Occupational Research, a consortium known as EPHOR.
Owlstone estimates that 5% to 7% of the total global disease burden is caused by on-the-job exposures, including cancers plus cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The consortium plans to pool data spanning about 21 million people to systematically explore different exposures and conditions.
Investors: A $50 million funding round over 2018, raised from Horizons Ventures, Aviva Ventures, Ventura Capital and Foxconn Technologies Group, among others.