60-second breath test to detect COVID-19
Breathonix is founded by Dr Jia Zhunan (left) and Mr Du Fang (middle). With them is NUS Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise) Professor Freddy Boey (right).
Breathonix Pte Ltd, a spin-off company from NUS, has developed an easy-to-use breath test to detect COVID-19 within a minute. This game-changing technology, which is believed to be the first in Asia, achieved more than 90 per cent accuracy in a Singapore-based pilot clinical trial that involved 180 patients.
Breathonix was founded by two NUS graduates, Dr Jia Zhunan and Mr Du Fang, and is supported by the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP), a scheme that encourages the University’s talented graduate students and research staff to establish and run high potential start-ups based on deep technologies.
“Our breath test is easy to administer, and it does not require specially-trained staff or laboratory processing. Results are generated in real-time, making it an attractive solution for mass screening, especially in areas with high human traffic. We believe our breath analysis platform shows promise in changing the tides of this pandemic,” said Dr Jia, Chief Executive Officer of Breathonix.
Non-invasive, real-time diagnosis
Rapid identification of individuals who are COVID-19 positive is crucial for contact tracing and helps to reduce virus transmission. The current gold standard for COVID-19 screening involves a swab test, which may be uncomfortable, and diagnosis using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests can take a few hours.
The revolutionary breath analysis technology developed by Breathonix offers a fast and convenient solution to identify COVID-19 infection. It works by detecting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) present in a person’s exhaled breath.
Dr Jia explained, "VOCs are consistently produced by various biochemical reactions in human cells. Different diseases cause specific changes to the compounds, resulting in detectable changes in a person’s breath profile. As such, VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like COVID-19.”
The test is simple to administer. A person only needs to blow into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a high-precision breath sampler. The exhaled breath is collected and fed into a cutting-edge mass spectrometer for measurement. A machine learning software analyses the VOC profile and generates the result in less than a minute.
“The disposable mouthpiece that our system uses has a one-way valve and a saliva trap, preventing inhalation and any saliva from entering the machine. This makes cross-contamination unlikely,” said Mr Du, Chief Operating Officer of Breathonix.
Pilot clinical trial conducted in Singapore
The team at Breathonix collaborated with the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), to test their breath analysis system for COVID-19 detection. In a pilot clinical trial involving 180 patients, Breathonix’s breath test, which uses in-built machine learning algorithms, achieved more than 90 per cent accuracy, with sensitivity (i.e. correctly identify those with the disease) of 93 per cent, and specificity (i.e. correctly identify those without the disease) of 95 per cent.
The clinical trial is ongoing, and more tests are required to further improve the accuracy of the technology.
If assessed to be suitable, this breath analysis platform could potentially be deployed in airports to facilitate the recovery of the tourism sector, as well as in places with high human traffic, such as dormitories.
The NUS GRIP team led by Professor Freddy Boey, Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise), is providing advice to Breathonix to obtain regulatory approvals for their technology and to deploy their system for mass screening.
Prof Boey said, “The novel technology to analyse VOCs accurately and quickly was first developed by Dr Jia Zhunan when she was a PhD student, for early detection of lung cancer. The technology was birthed through NUS GRIP, into the start-up Breathonix, and it is now contributing to Singapore’s fight against COVID-19. This demonstrates the huge potential of Singapore’s home-grown technologies and deep-tech start-ups. NUS is proud of the progress Breathonix has made since its inception, and we look forward to seeing their technology being deployed in Singapore in the near future to protect the health and well-being of the community.”