Trial with Maastricht COVID-19 breathalyser


MAASTRICHT. The ministry, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the Area Health Authority (GGD) are going test three ‘noses’, devices that can smell COVID-19 in exhaled breath. One of those is the ‘e-nose’ into which Maastricht scientists have carried out extensive research. Should the device meet requirements, it can be put to use immediately.

Today (Wednesday) is the last meeting with RIVM, says Nicole Bouvy, researcher and  surgeon at MUMC. After that, the experiment can begin. In an Amsterdam COVID-19 test centre, three  ‘noses’ will be tested. These are the Maastricht e-nose – designed by a company in Zutphen - and two comparable devices from Finland and Leiden.

The Leiden scientists and entrepreneurs have been widely covered by the media, but have no publication to their name yet. Because of this, their research setup is not clear. The Maastricht researchers did publish their findings. Bouvy tried to contact the Leiden team, but did not get an answer. “They are keeping their cards close to their chests, maybe they are afraid that others will take off with their data.”

The e-nose uses three sensors that detect substances in the exhaled breath. So, the device doesn’t seek out the virus, but the damage that it is causing in the body, the degradation products that are often secreted via breath. These are recognised on the basis of their size.

Whoever drives into the Amsterdam test centre next week, will have to face upwards for the familiar cotton swab, but may also be asked to take a breathalyser test with one of the three noses. The breathalyser test will present its result two minutes later. Anyone who tests negative, can go straight home. The noses are in that regard more reliable than the PCR test; the e-nose is 96 per cent correct. Is the result positive, the PCR test should provide a definite answer. 

The only problem will be in scaling things up, says Bouvy. The noses were made by small start-up businesses that know nothing about mass production. “At the moment, we have three hundred e-nose devices, of the Finnish device there are a thousand. But we will need tens of thousands. Fortunately, the Ministry of Health has offered its support if the upcoming test phase yields good results.”

The nose has been tested in Maastricht on various diseases. After a previous pilot, a sizeable research will soon start into ‘sniffing out’ thyroid cancer, funded with a subsidy of 630 thousand euro from the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF). Ten hospitals will use the device. In the pilot study, reliability of the e-nose was 94 per cent. In one third of the patients, it appeared that the lump on the thyroid was malignant and an operation was needed.

That is a considerable improvement compared to how things go now, says Bouvy. “At the moment, everyone with a lump on the thyroid is given surgery, because we can’t determine reliably enough beforehand whether the abnormality is benign or malignant. Four of the five operations turn out to have been unnecessary.”

The e-nose also appears suitable for the detection of lung tumours, intestinal cancer, and tuberculosis. “Who knows what else,” says Bouvy. “Analysing exhaled breath is virgin territory.” Moreover, the device was initially designed to find leaks of toxic substances in the  petrochemical industry. 

Trial with Maastricht COVID-19 breathalyser
Categories: Science

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