On the importance of accurate quantification of individual volatile metabolites in exhaled breath.J Breath Res. 2017 Nov 01; 11(4):047106.JB
It is argued that shortcomings of certain approaches to breath analysis research based on superficial interpretation of non-quantitative data are inadvertently inhibiting the progression of non-invasive breath analysis into clinical practice. The objective of this perspective is to suggest more clinically profitable approaches to breath research. Thus, following a discourse on the challenges and expectations in breath research, a brief indication is given of the analytical techniques currently used for the analysis of very humid exhaled breath. The seminal work that has been carried out using GC-MS revealed that exhaled breath comprises large numbers of trace volatile organic compounds, VOCs. Unfortunately, analysis of these valuable GC-MS data is mostly performed using chemometrics to distinguish the VOC content of breath samples collected from patients and healthy controls, and reliable quantification of the VOCs is rarely deemed necessary. This limited approach ignores the requirements of clinically acceptable biomarkers and misses the opportunity to identify relationships between the concentrations of individual VOCs and certain related physiological or metabolic parameters. Therefore, a plea is made for more effort to be directed towards the positive identification and accurate quantification of individual VOCs in exhaled breath, which are more physiologically meaningful as best exemplified by the quantification of breath nitric oxide, NO. Support for the value of individual VOC quantification is illustrated by the SIFT-MS studies of breath hydrogen cyanide, HCN, a biomarker of Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection, breath acetic acid as an indicator of airways acidification in cystic fibrosis patients, and n-pentane as a breath biomarker of inflammation in idiopathic bowel disease patients. These single VOCs could be used as non-invasive monitors of the efficacy of therapeutic intervention. The increase of breath methanol following the ingestion of a known amount of the sweetener aspartame impressively shows that accurate breath analysis is a reliable indicator of blood concentrations. However, using individual VOCs for specific disease diagnosis does have its problems and it is, perhaps, more appropriate to see their concentrations as proxy markers of general underlying physiological change. We dedicate this perspective to Lars Gustafsson for his seminal work on breath research and especially for his pioneering work on nitric oxide measurements in exhaled breath in asthma, which best shows the utility and value of the quantification of individual breath biomarkers on which this perspective focuses.