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The ability to detect the presence of explosives, insects or even disease just by sampling the air may evoke Bond-style gadgetry, but the vapour analysis market is the site of very real and rapid innovation.

Electronic Sensor Technology (EST) is among the companies currently developing analytical tools which could change the face of industries including medical diagnostics. CEO Bill Wittmeyer introduces the company and explains its ambitions to transform the way we screen for conditions like breast cancer.

How did Electronic Sensor Technology get started?

The company started when Dr Ed Staples realised that the same electromagnetic radiation filter technology used for cell phones and TV remotes could be used in sensors to detect very minute amounts of chemical compounds.

We first brought out a gas chromatography instrument that used this technology. Its original application was in areas like environmental pollution, detecting the presence of organic compounds in water samples. It is also very useful for such things as identifying the presence of vapour associated with explosives, chemical weapons and even insect pheromones. Being a very fast process, you can take a sample and analyse it in 20 seconds, which lends itself to this type of field application.

When I got involved in the company, the question was what we actually do with it. In conjunction with a major UK company we explored detecting bedbugs and other noxious insect pests by detecting the presence of pheromones in a hotel room. Now our focus is on disease detection.

How did you move into the disease detection space?

Breath analysis has been the subject of ongoing research since the 1960s, when Linus Pauling established that your exhaled breath contains a large amount of compounds that are generated as part of your biological processes. That’s triggered research into whether you can use breath as a means of diagnosing disease. Initially the research was hindered because instruments that could detect compounds at PPB (parts-per-billion) level were rare and expensive.  Since Pauling’s pioneering work, instrumentation has improved significantly. It is now less expensive, faster and more sensitive.

When I started in the company, Dr Chris Landon had demonstrated that breath analysis could detect a pseudomonas infection in children with cystic fibrosis faster, easier and earlier than other methods, like sputum analysis.  Dr Michael Philips of Mensanna Research was using our instrument to evaluate the effectiveness of breath analysis to identify lung cancer, breast cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases. Other researchers, most notably Dr Raed Dwiek at Cleveland Clinic, were publishing papers on the use of breath analysis to detect renal failure and liver fibrosis.

Breath analysis is a greenfield opportunity. It is emerging with multiple different technical approaches and no dominant incumbent. We focused on this opportunity. This led to developing a system for point-of-care breath analysis and a focus on a potential market opportunity, screening for breast cancer. Now we are in the process preparing for a large clinical trial for breast cancer in Mexico.

Why is breast cancer detection such an important application?

Our goal is to find non-invasive means of providing physicians and other healthcare providers with diagnostically actionable information at the point of care. We’re focused on breast cancer to begin with because it is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the world, and the incidence of breast cancer is young women is increasing. In some places, a third of all new breast cancers are being diagnosed in women under age 40. Early detection saves lives, reduces trauma and saves medical costs.

The mammogram is currently the gold standard for screening for breast cancer. Yet even in the US, a relatively open society with few barriers, only 65% of women follow the FDA recommended mammogram screening regime. In other countries there are social, economic and cultural barriers that reduce acceptance and access.

Mammograms require going into a radiation center where a skilled technologist has to operate the instrument. State-of-the-art mammogram machines cost around £200,000 ($275,000) each. Many countries still do not have the medical infrastructure or the budget to use mammograms as a screening tool.

If there’s a screening tool that can be used quickly at your local clinic or chemist’s, which does not require skilled technicians or expert analysis, it can have a major positive effect on women’s health.   Breath analysis is rapid, low-cost and eliminates a lot of barriers to use.

How does breath analysis fit into the market?

Breath analysis will be the initial screen used for breast cancer detection. In the US, we do about 110 screening mammograms for every new case of breast cancer detected. Breath analysis will reduce the number of screening mammograms. Instead, that technology will be deployed to localize where the tumor is for treatment.

Breath analysis will go beyond breast cancer detection. It will become a platform for gathering basic information on a patient’s state of heath and guiding the diagnostic activity of physicians.

When we take the breath, we get a lot of information. Some of it, we understand already: if there is mercaptan in your breath you may have colorectal cancer, and acetone is correlated with diabetes or alcoholism. Other markers of a patient’s health state are still unknown. We may eventually be able to detect signs of fatigue or Alzheimer’s or infectious diseases such as lime disease.

As we move towards personalized medicine, breath analysis is one more way of gathering a lot of data that will tell you much more about your health.

I expect that there will be plenty of room for coexistence within this market. It’s a greenfield with lots of opportunities to develop, and there’s going to be lots of innovation.

To find out more about how EST is revolutionizing disease detection, download the whitepaper below.