Sensors for breath testing: from nanomaterials to comprehensive disease detection

Acc Chem Res. 2014 Jan 21;47(1):66-76. doi: 10.1021/ar400070m. Epub 2013 Aug 8.


The analysis of volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath samples represents a new frontier in medical diagnostics because it is a noninvasive and potentially inexpensive way to detect illnesses. Clinical trials with spectrometry and spectroscopy techniques, the standard volatile-compound detection methods, have shown the potential for diagnosing illnesses including cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, tuberculosis, diabetes, and more via breath tests. Unfortunately, this approach requires expensive equipment and high levels of expertise to operate the necessary instruments, and the tests must be done quickly and use preconcentration techniques, all of which impede its adoption. Sensing matrices based on nanomaterials are likely to become a clinical and laboratory diagnostic tool because they are significantly smaller, easier-to-use, and less expensive than spectrometry or spectroscopy. An ideal nanomaterial-based sensor for breath testing should be sensitive at very low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, even in the presence of environmental or physiological confounding factors. It should also respond rapidly and proportionately to small changes in concentration and provide a consistent output that is specific to a given volatile organic compound. When not in contact with the volatile organic compounds, the sensor should quickly return to its baseline state or be simple and inexpensive enough to be disposable. Several reviews have focused on the methodological, biochemical, and clinical aspects of breath analysis in attempts to bring breath testing closer to practice for comprehensive disease detection. This Account pays particular attention to the technological gaps and confounding factors that impede nanomaterial-sensor-based breath testing, in the hope of directing future research and development efforts towards the best possible approaches to overcome these obstacles. We discuss breath testing as a complex process involving numerous steps, each of which has several possible technological alternatives with advantages and drawbacks that might affect the performance of the nanomaterial-based sensors in a breath-testing system. With this in mind, we discuss how to choose nanomaterial-based sensors, considering the profile of the targeted breath markers and the possible limitations of the approach, and how to design the surrounding breath-testing setup. We also discuss how to tailor the dynamic range and selectivity of the applied sensors to detect the disease-related volatile organic compounds of interest. Finally, we describe approaches to overcome other obstacles by improving the sensing elements and the supporting techniques such as preconcentration and dehumidification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breath Tests / instrumentation*
  • Diagnosis*
  • Disease*
  • Gases / analysis
  • Humans
  • Nanostructures*
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / analysis


  • Gases
  • Volatile Organic Compounds