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Waiting to exhale

Scientists sift the chemical potpourri that escapes our lungs for new ways to diagnose disease

2:40pm, November 1, 2013

CATCHING YOUR BREATH  The chemicals that escape our lungs could give doctors new ways to diagnose disease.

The 800 or so breaths you release each hour contain more than just spent air. Along with familiar gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, each breath holds a vaporized record of the foods you’ve eaten, the places you’ve been, the drugs you’ve taken, the pollutants you’ve encountered and the general operation of your internal organs. It’s a chronicle of daily living that doctors have been largely unable to read.

But a handful of researchers are getting better at deciphering these gaseous clues, bringing us closer to the day when a kind of disease breathalyzer could be part of a routine checkup or maybe even a cell phone app.

The idea of medical diagnosis through exhaled odor is as old as the practice of medicine itself. Hippocrates wrote a treatise on “fetor hepaticus,” or the fishy aroma of liver failure, and noted the sour-scented breath of those with failing kidneys. Only recently, however, has the mainstream medical

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