New 'Headphone' Device May Revolutionize Medical Diagnostics
by Jessica Lopez, age 12
Did you know that the body releases gasses that indicate certain illnesses? Recent studies are testing the use of headphones to sniff out these gasses. Instead of using needles to collect fluid samples from patients, now doctors can get information based on gas collection from these headsets.
Moamen Elmassry, a microbiologist at Princeton University who didn’t participate in the project said, “The ear is a good place to monitor.” This is because the ear has a thin layer of skin so gasses can easily escape from the skin's pores.
For example, studies in Japan discovered that alcohol could be detected from the skin of people's ears. Similar to a breathalyzer, their system with the right sensors could detect alcohol from an individual’s body. In the future, they believe the sensors can actually find diseases in our system more quickly than blood tests.
Koji Toma is a biomedical engineer at Tokyo Medical and Dental University. He says that whenever you exhale, the gasses that dissolve in your blood leave your body and they also escape from your skin pores. To collect the gasses from the skin, his team tried covering their patient’s hand with a plastic bag, but the sensors often got confused because of the skin's sweat.
Instead, Toma’s team used earmuffs with a tight seal, drilling two holes in one. The tube connected to the hole on the earmuff is supposed to slowly pump air to the ear. The second hole is for the air to come out and go to the sensor.
For their first test, they had three men avoid alcohol for three days. They sat down with the earmuffs for about 10 minutes and the sensor recorded a normal gas level leaving their ears. Then the men drank three cans of beer. After seven minutes the earmuff system sniffed out a rise from the alcohol leaving the skin, peaking 50 minutes later, and then falling to normal levels. This prototype took 90 minutes. Toma believes a test in a doctor's office would be much faster.
Toma’s team would only have to change out their sensor if they want to measure other gasses. They might also change the earmuffs into a one eared version so then it’s more comfortable.
Scientist Elmassry suggests the new system could also help tell if a child’s ear infection is a bacteria or a virus. The fact that each kind of infection produces different gasses could guide the treatment plan. For example, ear infections with bacteria respond with antibiotics; viral infections do not.
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