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Sniffing out disease

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Saturday, June 4th, 2011

A nano ‘nose’ developed by an Israeli professor can detect and classify cancer, kidney disease and other serious ailments just by analyzing breath samples.

Within a few years, it will be possible to breathe into a portable medical device to find out if you have diseases such as cancer or kidney disease – and to determine its exact type so that doctors can better target treatment. This revolutionary non-invasive invention is the brainchild of a celebrated Israeli-Arab chemical engineer at the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Dubbed NA NOSE (for nano-artificial nose), Prof. Hossam Haick’s device is in the early stages of being readied for commercialization through the Alfred Mann Institute of the Technion, a philanthropic fund to advance biomedical ideas originating at the university. Lab and clinical researchers are discovering wider applications for the product the more they test and fine-tune it.

The nose knows

Haick’s “aha” moment was a conversation with two specialists who said that patients with diseased kidneys typically have ammonia-scented breath. For the past six years, he and his team have been perfecting an inexpensive sensor that sniffs out disease biomarkers passing from the bloodstream to the lungs and out through the breath.

Focusing first on lung cancer, the research earned Haick a 1.73 million-euro Marie Curie Excellence Award in 2006 and a 1.8 million-euro European Research Council Award in 2010. Now he is leading a European consortium of eight universities and companies to develop advanced screening nanosensors for lung cancer with the help of a 5.4 million-euro grant.

“This is at the research level,” stresses Haick, who admits he works on the project “more than full time.” It could take three or four years for NA-NOSE to reach the market, as it must go through rigorous procedures to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration or the equivalent agencies in other countries.

In the meantime, the device keeps looking more promising, as Haick reported to the American Society of Clinical Oncology last fall and in the British Journal of Cancer in December last year. Beyond simply showing that someone has a disease, NA-NOSE can pinpoint the particulars. “In the last two years, we achieved good advances in discrimination between lung, prostate, breast and colorectal cancer and we have shown an ability to distinguish between head and neck cancers and lung cancers,” says Haick.

If physicians know exactly what subtype of cancer is present, they can target treatments accordingly, resulting in fewer side effects and greater overall success. “In the case of breast cancer, we have shown that we can distinguish not just between sick and healthy women, but we can subcategorize between women with no tumors, malignant tumors and benign tumors,” says Haick. “In addition, we have shown a correlation between genetic mutations of the cancer and volatile biomarkers that would appear in the exhaled breath. This also relates to targeted therapy, because genetic features distinguish among patients and help predict how they would respond to treatment.”

Detecting kidney disease at earliest stage

Lung cancer and kidney disease both affect tens of millions of Americans and have typically poor outcomes due to late-stage detection. Haick’s team has significant clinical data demonstrating NA-NOSE’s ability to discriminate between different stages of kidney disease – and at a much earlier point than conventional technology.

Particularly when dealing with acute kidney disease resulting from injury or poisoning – where a patient can lose 50 to 60 percent of kidney function within days – NA-NOSE could guide physicians in slowing the progression before it’s too late. “Our technology can detect kidney disease when the patient has lost approximately 5-10% of function, as opposed to conventional technology, which detects it when it is already at 50 or 60%,” says Haick. “Especially with acute kidney disease, a difference of two days is quite significant for the treatment process.”

Most studies have been done at the Technion in collaboration with Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus and the Technion’s Rappaport Medical School. The lung cancer study also has been carried out in collaboration with the University of Colorado.

Raised in Nazareth, internationally renowned

A product of Israel’s northern Arab-Christian community in Nazareth, Haick was named one of 35 top scientists in the world in 2008 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review, and last year appeared on the Calcalist list of “Ten Most Promising Young Israeli Scientists” and the Jerusalem Post “Young Israelis of the Year” list.

The winner of more than 40 international prizes, Haick most recently received the Knight of the Order of Academic Palms from the French government, a respected civilian decoration established in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Educated in Israel, it was during post-doctorate studies at the California Institute of Technology that Haick first worked with electronic noses. He now lives in Haifa with his wife, a chemist and food engineer at the Israeli Ministry of Health