High tech gas sensors for premium cars turned into diagnostic device
for human diseases
28 October 2009
High-tech gas sensors normally used to test components for
premium cars have been used by researchers at Warwick University to
analyse human blood and urine, and even cow dung samples to test their
feasibility for diagnosing diseases.
The results could lead to a new diagnostic tool that could provide a
fast diagnosis for some of the most difficult gastrointestinal illnesses
and metabolic diseases
Fermentation of undigested foods in the colon by its resident
bacteria affects not only colonic health (protection against
inflammation and tumour formation) but also influences metabolic health.
Studying fermentation and the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) it
generates directly is difficult due to lack of easy access to the colon.
Researchers from the University of Warwick’s innovation specialists
WMG have devised a solution to this problem using a special suite of
equipment normally used to test car components for premium cars.
The equipment heats car material samples to see what range of
volatile chemicals (essentially gases) are emitted from car components
to understand what implications that would have for air quality in the
car and how it might affect the future recycling of the component. The
car researchers wondered if this high tech equipment for studying
volatile chemicals in premium cars would also assist their medical
colleagues seeking to study volatile organic compounds from the human
The University of Warwick WMG researchers Dr Mark Pharaoh and Dr
Geraint J. Williams invited medical consultant Dr Ramesh P Arasaradnam
(a Clinician Scientist and Lecturer in Gastroenterology in Warwick
Medical School and a Gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Coventry
& Warwick) to work with them to advise on how they could test their
equipment on organic matter. Professors Sudesh Kumar, Chuka Nwokolo and
K D Bardhan, from Warwick Medical School, also joined the team.
The gas products of fermentation include various volatile organic
compounds, the relative proportions of which may change in disease. The
research team have coined the term ‘fermentome’ to describe the complex
interplay between diet, symbiont bacteria and volatile gases.
The clinical researchers in the team believed that the research
engineer’s equipment could help them study such a ‘fermentome’ which
could then be used for diagnosis and disease characterisation.
Measurement of VOCs through non-invasive methods could then have an
important application as a hypothesis-generating tool and could even
have clinical applications.
The joint clinician and engineering research team have now performed
tests using the car analysis equipment on human blood, human urine, and
even cow and horse dung collected locally. The results so far suggest
that the equipment could indeed be used to obtain a useful picture of
the range of fermentation gases produced by this organic matter.
Knowing what those mix of gases are could therefore provide a useful
analogue understanding of what gastrointestinal illness or metabolic
diseases are afflicting patient.
The team have just published their research in a paper entitled
“Colonic fermentation — More than meets the nose” in the journal Med
Hypotheses. The research team are now exploring funding options
that would allow them to take this new technique into a larger scale
studies including clinical trials.
Dr Mark Pharaoh said: “These early results suggest that we could
indeed use this automotive technology to give medical consultants a very
precise understanding of the mix of gasses being produced within the
human gut. An understanding of the precise mix of gasses is a very
valuable clue to understanding any problem with the balance and mix of
bacteria that are generating those gases.”
Dr Ramesh P Arasaradnam said: “This is could be a vital new tool in
the diagnosis of gastrointestinal as well as metabolic diseases. Gaining
first hand information of what is going on in the gut would require very
invasive procedures. Even simply culturing the bacteria from a patient’s
urine or faeces takes a considerable amount of time. This technique
could give medical consultants such as myself valuable information about
what is causing a patient’s condition long before the data from a
standard bacterial culture would be available.”
The research team are now exploring funding options that would allow
them to take this new technique into a clinical trial.