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NIST Working On "Deathalyzer"

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 6 years ago | from the welcome-humans-i-am-ready-for-you dept.

95

coondoggie writes to mention that a new optical technique for sensing small amounts of molecules in a person's breath has been developed by a researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The goal is to create a fast, low-cost method for detecting disease. "In this approach, NIST researchers analyze human breath with 'frequency combs,' which are generated by a laser specially designed to produce a series of very short, equally spaced pulses of light. Each pulse may be only a few million billionths of a second long. The laser generates light as a series of very narrow frequency peaks equally spaced, like the teeth of a comb, across a broad spectrum."

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95 comments

Only One Thing To Debug... (5, Funny)

Wandering Wombat (531833) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491430)

... the machine keeps declaring that everyone has "Stupidity"...

Re:Only One Thing To Debug... (4, Interesting)

exploder (196936) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491662)

They might debug the name, too. "Breathalyzers" detect alcohol, not breath. A "deathalyzer" sounds like it would be used for autopsies.

Legal problems with this... (1)

Gage With Union (1174735) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491830)

namely that my über-speed metal band has already trademarked "Deathalyzer(TM). (and in England, Deathalyser(TM)) We are willing, however, to post a disambiguation notice concerning the article on our website as a favor, however. You can see it at www.ideathalize.com [ideathalize.com]

Re:Only One Thing To Debug... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22496500)

Actually there is a movie made in USSR about a guy who invented a device that measures level of stupidity... Things started to go wrong when he introduced the thing to some government representatives. I would introduce device without that feature and let public domain take care of the rest :)

In Soviet Russia (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22491504)

In Soviet Russia, Diesease detects you!

I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22491544)


downwind of SATAN [whitehouse.org] .

Regards,
Kilgore Trout, PatRIOT

Re:I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (-1, Troll)

Bryansix (761547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491768)

Thanks for that post Hugo Chavez. Now get back to what you are good at; changing the constitution of your country so you can stay in power forever.

Re:I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (1)

WilliamSChips (793741) | more than 6 years ago | (#22500684)

Everyone hates Bush now. Hell, even Republicans hate Bush now. Hugo Chavez isn't the only one saying bad things about a certain rhesus monkey.

Re:I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (1)

Bryansix (761547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22504710)

Whatever. I thought my post was obvious in it's reference to Hugo Chavez' speech at the UN. Also you shouldn't make absolute statements like "Everyone hates Bush now". All I have to do is say that I don't hate him and your statement is false. The only things I dislike about Bush is his stance on immigration and his weak stance on Israel who is out ally. I supported the decision to go to Iraq even though in hindsight it was a mistake. However at the time nobody could know for sure because Saddam was bluffing and acting like he had something to hide. Now that we are in Iraq we must no leave until the country is stable and mostly rid of the terrorists who are now killing everyone indiscriminetely. It is the only right thing to do. In fact this is one of the few things I can agree 100% on with McCain. Lastly, calling someone a rhesus monkey doesn't prove anything to anybody. In my post I pointed out something that Hugo Chavez did. You just resorted to name calling. I wonder whose argument had more basis in fact?

Re:I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (1)

Woundweavr (37873) | more than 6 years ago | (#22505482)

Whatever. I thought my post was obvious in it's reference to Hugo Chavez' speech at the UN. Also you shouldn't make absolute statements like "Everyone hates Bush now". All I have to do is say that I don't hate him and your statement is false.


This is an example of a pedantic and arguably self-defeating point, class. If one wished to get similarly technical, the latter statement does not disprove the first, clearly not meant to be literal, statement. A qualifier "now" qualifies the criticized statement in the first place to a greater or equal degree of "like 'Everyone hates Bush now'" in the criticizing statement. Indicating current facts does not alter the truth value of a previous statement if the passage of time may have altered the current facts.

Nevertheless, perhaps the Bush-supporting author of the criticizing comments just really requires proof before making definitive statements or action. Whether that attribute is compatible with a Bush supporter is open to debate. However, simply reading on quick disproves that hypothesis:

However at the time nobody could know for sure because Saddam was bluffing and acting like he had something to hide.

Now that we are in Iraq we must no leave until the country is stable and mostly rid of the terrorists who are now killing everyone indiscriminetely.

Lastly, calling someone a rhesus monkey doesn't prove anything to anybody.

and finally class, one thats a big more subtle.

You just resorted to name calling.

Now assuming we ignore any ambiguity or typing errors, a reasonable conclusion is that the criticizing comment was at its core without merit due to self-contradiction. The latter statements validity can be interpreted at another time, but my personal opinion is that a post written by a rhesus monkey would contain an equal amount of insight, original thought and factually based analysis.

Re:I smell the strong odor of SULPHUR (1)

Bryansix (761547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22505896)

Thatnks for that analysis there... Not. "Now" is obviously presumed to be a point in time when the post was made. Now just a simple anecdotal fact like the fact that my wife loves Bush without reservation disproves his absolute statement. Also he didn't qualify it in the traditional terms by saying "almost" as in "almost everyone hates Bush now". He didn't say this. It was this missing word that I take issue with. You actually have to say it to qualify the statement. Also "now" doesn't equal any point in the future. Even if it did it would be statistically rare that in fact at any given point in the future everyone would hate a past president. Once again you resorted to Ad Hominem arguments just like the orginal poster so you just proved how biased you are towards using fallacy in your arguments.

Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (5, Insightful)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491562)

I can see how this could affect premiums, let alone offerings.

"None for you, deathbreath!"

Re:Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (3, Insightful)

Wandering Wombat (531833) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491636)

Good point....

Insurer: Ok, Mr Smith, let's have a little puff here...
*puffpuff*
Insurer: Ooooh, that's not good... according to this you need to pay $435 per month. Sorry, blame technology.

Re:Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (1)

stretch0611 (603238) | more than 6 years ago | (#22494290)

$435/month? That is probably a young healthy non-smoker. When I last went to buy insurance, I admitted to having sleep apnea. I was immediately told there would be a 3 year pre-existing condition clause on apnea treatment and an automatic 15% premium increase. The sad thing is it was still a bargain and I accepted the conditions.

Re:Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 6 years ago | (#22505094)

You are talking about a medical cost sharing program.

Tying costs to risk is a good thing in insurance.

Re:Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (1)

Fyz (581804) | more than 6 years ago | (#22499742)

[flamebait]
America: These readings don't look so hot. We're going to have to charge you everything you own!

Europe: These readings don't look so hot. We're going to have to get you some help immediately!
[/flamebait]

Re:Life Insurance & Medical Coverage? (1)

WilliamSChips (793741) | more than 6 years ago | (#22507500)

This is why we need an Obama presidency. As president, he'd support a healthcare bill and not get the passage screwed up like Hillary did in the 90s.

Mostly Dead (5, Funny)

DamienRBlack (1165691) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491588)

Officer: I'm sorry sir, the deathalyzer says you're too far over the legal 'dead' limit to be driving. What do you have to say for yourself?

Passenger: But officer, he can't say anything he's dead.

Officer: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.

Passenger: What's that?

Officer: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

Hanky Panky (1)

HTH NE1 (675604) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492318)

Michael Jordon: Ask Mr. Puckett if I should bring it nose first or tail first?
Kate Hellman: Michael he's dead.
Michael Jordon: He is not dead.
Kate Hellman: Yes he is.
Michael Jordon: No he's not just ask him, ask him.
Kate Hellman: Mr. Puckett, should he bring it in nose first or tail first?

[pause]

Michael Jordon: What did he say?
Kate Hellman: [pounding Michael] Michael he's DEAD!!!
Michael Jordon: He is not dead, he has gas! Haven't you heard of that? He's having a gas attack!
Kate Hellman: Oh! [sighs]
Michael Jordon: Where are the wheels?
Kate Hellman: I don't know, where are the wheels?
Michael Jordon, Kate Hellman: Where are the wheels?
Michael Jordon: Where are the wheels?
Kate Hellman: [sarcastically] Oh why don't you ask Mr. Puckett where the wheels are?
Michael Jordon: Ha ha! Why can't I ask Mr. Puckett where the wheels are? Huh, Miss Smartass? Go on say it, go ahead!
Kate Hellman: Oh, because he's dead.
Michael Jordon: He is not dead, would you stop saying he's dead? He's got gas!

Re:Hanky Panky (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22492564)

Is this the world-renowned Michael Jordon of the NBO?

Re:Mostly Dead - Writers Strike (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22493060)

Hmmm...looks like the writers strike is benefitting slashdot.

Re:Mostly Dead - Writers Strike (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22493344)

Not likely since it's over now.

Futurama had a Death-O-Meter (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491606)

I recall that it was fairly accurate too.

Re:Futurama had a Death-O-Meter (1)

Kuukai (865890) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491828)

Yeah, the Death Clock. "It's occasionally off by a few seconds, what with free will and all."

Re:Futurama had a Death-O-Meter (1)

dgatwood (11270) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492626)

I just hope it's not as lame as that Death Clock you presented last year.

Other applications? (4, Interesting)

TripMaster Monkey (862126) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491676)

I wonder how well this technology could be adapted for other applications, such as detecting contraband in travelers' luggage, or detecting explosives. Perhaps for detecting survivors or casualties during disasters?

Could we be seeing the demise of the drug/bomb sniffing dog with this new tech?

Re:Other applications? (1)

The Ancients (626689) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491776)

Demise? Or retirement? This thing takes no prisoners...

Depending on cost, one obvious potential use I can see for it is for breath testing for alcohol (instead of this method [mothership.co.nz] ).

Robotic sniffing dog overlords... (2, Insightful)

Nick Driver (238034) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492410)

Could we be seeing the demise of the drug/bomb sniffing dog with this new tech?

Maybe. But maybe we'll just see the rise of the electronic sniffing machines that can easily be surreptitiously programmed to report falsified findings, kinda like electronic voting machines.

Dogs are trained to smell skin cancer (2, Informative)

JonTurner (178845) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492578)

This is basically an electronic nose, (an astoundingly sensitive one) which could be used for many purposes such as narcotic interdiction, explosives detection, etc. And could be used to detect various vorms of cancer:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/01/0112_060112_dog_cancer.html [nationalgeographic.com]

"Our study provides compelling evidence that cancers hidden beneath the skin can be detected simply by [dogs] examining the odors of a person's breath," said Michael McCulloch, who led the research.

Two additional anecdotal stories of early cancer detection by dogs:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-09-24-cancer-sniffing_x.htm [usatoday.com]

yes; but does it .. (1)

h.ross.perot (1050420) | more than 6 years ago | (#22494560)

.. work on parrots?

Re:yes; but does it .. (1)

niktemadur (793971) | more than 6 years ago | (#22494762)

More importantly, does it work on Attila The Hun (or as he's known to his friends - "The") or Alexander The Great?

Please, consider the advantages of owning a Hunalyzer, or Alexander The Greathalyzer.

Re:Other applications? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22499476)

There was a guy at the airport waving a wand over all my luggage last time i went through the airport (Australia, domestic)

I was told it finds explosives. I was also told that it was a damn cushy job, what with brisbane being a hotbed of terrorist activity and all..

To Blathe! (4, Funny)

dsginter (104154) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491722)

Will this deathalizer tell me if someone is only mostly dead?

Re:To Blathe! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22493658)

Maybe you should try to talk to her eventually, after all...

Each pulse may be only a few million billionths... (1)

Hampton_Comes_Alive (1084219) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491730)

...of a second long? I parsed that as 'a few million' x 1/1,000,000,000.... isn't that just an overblown way of saying a few milliseconds? Disclaimer: not a mathematician, didn't RTFA, don't really care to. --DG

Re:Each pulse may be only a few million billionths (0, Troll)

ichthyoboy (1167379) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491928)

Time to learn your SI prefixes: milli = 10^-3. One millisecond = 0.001 second. One million billionth of a second would be 10^-15, also known as a femtosecond.

Re:Each pulse may be only a few million billionths (1)

ericrost (1049312) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492508)

Wrong, one million billionths would not be equivalent to milli(billionth of a second)

what it would be equivalent to is exactly what the gp said:

10^6 * 10^-9 = 10^-3 = 1 millisecond. :p

Re:Each pulse may be only a few million billionths (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22493260)

I think that's just a mistake in the article. Frequency combs usually use femptosecond pulses, so that would be a few million-billionths (millionths of a billionth) rather than a few million billionths.

Re:Each pulse may be only a few million billionths (1)

ericrost (1049312) | more than 6 years ago | (#22501598)

They ought (as the GP indicated) to say femtosecond then.. what so hard about that? This, I guess, is why the SI system is so handy.

few thousandths? (4, Interesting)

MyNymWasTaken (879908) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491732)

few million billionths

Is that a few thousandths or a few quadrillionths?

Re:few thousandths? (1)

DanQuixote (945427) | more than 6 years ago | (#22493292)

>> few million billionths


> Is that a few thousandths or a few quadrillionths?


Yea... welcome to English!

Actually, the author was just trying to impress us with his "illions" of high-tech words.

Fonzi? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22491782)

Was he helping out on this one? I heard he knows a thing or two about combs.

Already exists (5, Funny)

nedburns (1238162) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491790)

They better be careful before someone sues for patent violation for detecting "old stench".

The human nose can detect the particles accurately as you walk through a nursing home or hospital.

Re:Already exists (4, Interesting)

Missing_dc (1074809) | more than 6 years ago | (#22493768)

I wish I had not spent my mod points this morning, this one is not "troll"

    Its perfectly true, having woked at a hospital myself, I can often smell when someone has illnesses and you would be amazed at how many nurses can tell you what a person probably has just by the smell of the room. I've discussed this with many a pretty nurse in the cafeteria. (morbid, I know... it came with the job)

Re:Already exists (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22494202)

This is interesting. Does it smell because of their exhalation? What do different diseases smell like?

Re:Already exists (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 6 years ago | (#22495820)

And could explain that cat that apparently always waited outside someone's room as they were about to die.. well, gives him a bit of plausible deniability in any case, sneaky little murdering bastard that he is..

couldn't they use this to detect other things? (4, Informative)

aldousd666 (640240) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491804)

Like marijuana or cocaine? Wasn't one of the primary complaints against legalizing marijuana from a law enforcement perspective the lack of ability to monitor the level of intoxication of a user? Well there you go. Hippies rejoice. It's a step toward your green [smoke] goal. Tree hugging anyone?

Re:couldn't they use this to detect other things? (2, Interesting)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492498)

While you are correct about the being able to "test" how intoxicated someone is with pot, I think it less of a matter of "How would we do it?" to more like "How can we test for inability to drive differently?".
 
The breathalyzer HAS worked with alcohol intoxication, but rather than thinking about how we can adapt it to other things, the better approach, I would say, is to just test in a different way. After all, there could be multitudes of things, both legal and illegal, that can put you in a state where you should't be driving... cough medicine, insomnia for days, pain meds from a recent surgery, not wearing your glasses, just being too old etc. A process of evaluation of your driving skills needs to be adopted. Check if pupils are dilated. Check if they can read the sign being held ten feet away. Walk in a straight line. Recall five objects that were spoken thirty seconds ago.
 
A lot of this is part of a sobriety test, but if these tests were streamlined, tweaked, and changed a little, it can be the perfect catch all for anyone who shouldn't be driving... not only those who have been drinking/smoking pot.

Dr. McCoy had one (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22491902)

So we'll be able to wave a flickering sensor over someone to get medical info? Seems familiar...

Re:Dr. McCoy had one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22492146)

He's dead, Jim.

What, no "Sharks" tag? (1)

StonedYoda47 (732257) | more than 6 years ago | (#22491938)

/. is slipping....a story about lasers and no sharks tag?!? Shocked I tell, shocked.

Re:What, no "Sharks" tag? (3, Funny)

PIPBoy3000 (619296) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492078)

/. is slipping....a story about lasers and no sharks tag?!? Shocked I tell, shocked.
They tried mounting a Deathalyzer on a shark, but the result was always that the subject would die within a few seconds.

Re:What, no "Sharks" tag? (1)

StonedYoda47 (732257) | more than 6 years ago | (#22493102)

Sounds like they've improved the targeting mechanism. Maybe someone should tell the US Navy before they shoot that missile.

They tried mounting a Deathalyzer on a shark, but the result was always that the subject would die within a few seconds.

Gary (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22491984)

niger nigra

Blow on a Laser KAZOO..... (1)

SomeoneGotMyNick (200685) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492104)

....and find out your disease du jour.

Is there a prize for guessing correctly, first? Like a reduction on your future insurance premiums?

As accurate as breathilzers? (1)

syousef (465911) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492124)

I had a mate who wasn't drinking test positive on a couple of breathalizers, but a blood test came up negative. He was arrested and it shook him quite badly. This is a whole new way of ruining lives. I wonder how many heart attacks you can induce telling a person they're about to die?

"The magic 8 ball says....." "you will live. Have a nice day!"
"The magic 8 ball says....." "you will die. Sorry better luck next time. Please be sure to pay your bill immediately"

Diabetes - acetone on breath (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22493570)

I had a mate who wasn't drinking test positive on a couple of breathalizers, but a blood test came up negative. He was arrested and it shook him quite badly. This is a whole new way of ruining lives.

Since you used the term 'mate' to describe your friend, I'll assume that you're perhaps in Australia???

People who have diabetes (even mild forms that otherwise do not need insulin treatments) often exhale small amounts of acetone, as that is a byproduct of improper metabolism of sugars in diabetics. Acetone causes the ethanol sensing mechanism in handheld breathalyzers to go ape-shit crazy and falsely over-report the presence of ethyl alcohol. Police officers in the USA are supposed to be trained specifically to be on the lookout for this situation in order to get certified to use the breathalyzer and be able to use its test results as evidence in a court of law.

Also people on low-carb diets will have elevated levels of acetone in their bloodstream.

Whoa!! Bizarro universe has EXACT SAME NEWS!!! (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22492132)

I somehow loaded Slashdot from a bizarro universe. It was gone by the time I refreshed it, but not before I got a screenshot... Here is my transcription (emphasis added)...
--

End of Zombie Menace in Sight? NIST Working On "Deathalyzer"
Posted by ScuttleMonkey [slashdot.org] on Wednesday February 20, @01:36PM
from the payback-time department

coondoggie [networkworld.com] writes to mention that a new optical technique [networkworld.com] for sensing small amounts of death molecules in a persons breath has been developed by a researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This technology might one day be used as a fast, low-cost method for detecting whether someone is a zombie.

"In this approach, NIST researchers analyze human breath with 'frequency combs,' which are generated by a laser specially designed to produce a series of very short, equally spaced pulses of light. Each pulse may be only a few million billionths of a second long. The laser generates light as a series of very narrow frequency peaks equally spaced, like the teeth of a comb, across a broad spectrum."
Could this mean the end of the zombie menace?

Can anybody say... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22492186)

Deathclock?

Sound like a form of hi-tech infra-red scan. (4, Interesting)

bornwaysouth (1138751) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492210)

The article is vague on how it works, but as a once upon a time chemical analyst (way way back), this sounds like it is doing the equivalent of an infra red scan, using rapid chopping the frequency the vibrations. Dunno. I just used the machines, I'm not a physicist. It may be a better way of doing it.

But the concept of detecting for a whole bunch of compounds at once has been around for many decades, as is the idea that you can detect health and sickness states with it. The ideas all seemed to bog down in reality. Pattern detection relies an a massive reliable database. In the article, they focussed on asthma. As a (once) chemist, I noted that hydrogen peroxide was now hydro-peroxide, and the nitrite and nitrate ions were somehow volatile. Not show stoppers, but cause for questioning what they actually were detecting. And rather hi-tech compared to a cardboard peak flow meter.

The social impact if it works is rather similar to gene scanning. If an employer tests applicants for jobs, then not only being a smoker can be detected. Maybe a whole bunch of disease risks. The individual risk increases may not be enough to diagnose a specific disease (so no use to a clinician), but a doubled risk of asthma, heart conditions etc would all ad up to a statistical bad risk. Life insurers also might like the idea.

So you may find it threatening. On the other had, if you are healthy, why have high insurance premiums. Oh well. Definitive tests for disease have been invented before. And people very sharply fall into the Want-to know or Don't-tell-me camps. Having the info acquired under a form of blackmail makes for problems.

Re:Sound like a form of hi-tech infra-red scan. (2, Informative)

repapetilto (1219852) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492780)

Yea to me it looks like spectroscopy, except instead of first purifying the sample then dissolving it, its some sort of gas chromatography device that separates the different molecules for you (based on how much each type sticks to the walls), then you scan whatever absorption frequencies your looking for with the laser and compare the energy you detect with what the laser put out. Wherever there was absorption(depends on the frequency and molecule) will tell you what was in there by comparing the spectra with that of known molecules. The trick here seems to be that you don't have to prepare the sample at all, and they use a series of ultra-short laser pulses rather than normal em radiation in order to detect low concentrations easier. Cool idea.

Also hydro-peroxide is the name for a different molecule (actually class of molecules) than hydrogen peroxide, R-O-O-H vs H-O-O-H respectively. And I assume the nitrate/nitrate ions are either hydrogenated or they regulate the pressure and lower it enough for the ion to enter the gas phase. That diagram has a "tedlar bag" attached for some reason though, so maybe theres some extra reaction going on between certain molecules and the tedlar, or the bad could be made of tedlar, thats not clear.

Re:Sound like a form of hi-tech infra-red scan. (1)

treeves (963993) | more than 6 years ago | (#22494200)

Tedlar body bags?
Seems like overkill. (no pun intended)

Re:Sound like a form of hi-tech infra-red scan. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492948)

I noted that hydrogen peroxide was now hydro-peroxide, and the nitrite and nitrate ions were somehow volatile.
I think they were talking about the hydroperoxide radical ( -OOH ), either free or attached to some other radical to form a molecule. Also they said "nitrites" and "nitrates" - molecules rather than the free radical.

Some of these puppies are volatile. Others may end up in breath due to their inclusions in the aerosols formed when the exhalations pick up droplets - which rapidly evaporate in the dry environment of the test equipment's nitrogen carrier gas - or microscopic bits of debris.

Production of free radicals and peroxides are part of the inflammation mechanism - as the body attacks what it perceives to be foreign matter or organisms. So it's reasonable to find peroxides and free radicals - including free hydroperoxide radicals - in the breath of an asthma sufferer, whose bronchial tubes are inflamed. Ditto for inflammation of the airways due to any other pathology. And volatile compounds from elsewhere in the body that make it to the bloodstream will make it to the breath as well.

Downside is that inflammation is the body's response to darned near anything abnormal. (Thus the prevalence of "flu-like symptoms" in the diagnostic signs of many diseases.) So to the extent that it identifies inflammation-specific products this device should be good for a general state-of-health assay - and it might be able to distinguish inflammation in the airways versus the rest of the body by the differing ratios of products as a result of bloodstream transport and blood-air crossing. Beyond that it will have trouble distinguishing different pathologies unless they generate or suppress characteristic compounds that would make it to the breath.

So it's not a panacea. But it should be VERY useful as both a general-health measure and a screen for a considerable number of diseases and disease processes.

Re:Sound like a form of hi-tech infra-red scan. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | more than 6 years ago | (#22493052)

Some of these puppies are volatile. Others may end up in breath due to their inclusions in the aerosols formed when the exhalations pick up droplets - which rapidly evaporate in the dry environment of the test equipment's nitrogen carrier gas - or microscopic bits of debris.
Also: Once you have an ionic molecule floating in the test cell, the energy of the laser photons should kick the ions apart - allowing them to be analyzed separately. This will simplify the analysis because the instrument will be looking for the signatures of a small number of ions rather than the much larger number of their combinations.

Here's how it works. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | more than 6 years ago | (#22498058)

The article is vague on how it works, but as a once upon a time chemical analyst (way way back), this sounds like it is doing the equivalent of an infra red scan, using rapid chopping the frequency the vibrations.
The fourier transform of a train of identical pulses is a "comb" - a series of sharp, equally-spaced frequencies where the spacing (difference in frequency between consecutive component "colors") is the same as the repetition rate of the pulse train.

A laser consists of a resonant cavity and an amplifier (maybe plus some optional extras).

The cavity, like a guitar string, has a SET of equally-spaced resonances ("resonance modes"), all those frequencies where a round trip of a wave is an exact integer number of wavelengths of the frequency (of light in this case). So it will resonate for light colors where a billion wavelengths fit, or a billion-and-one, or a billion-and-two, and so on. This resonant response is also a "comb" of equally spaced frequencies. And this comb has a LOT of teeth.

The amplifier is electrons in atoms, pumped up to high energy states stimulated by passing photons to make a transition from a particular high state to another particular lower state and emit this energy as another photon of the same frequency and phase. It amplifies a particular frequency. This response WOULD be very sharp - at absolute zero. But it is broadened by such things as doppler shifts from thermal vibration.

Combine the frequency response curves of the amplifier and the resonant cavity and you'll find a significant number of "teeth" in the resonant cavity's "comb" where the gain on a photon's round trip is greater than one, i.e. a photon is more likely to release a partner than to get lost on any given round trip. These are the modes where the laser will oscillate.

But pumping energy into a mode removes energy from the amplifier, momentarily lowering its gain. So (as with an organ pipe or a brass horn) the mode (or modes) which get "pumped up" steal energy that would otherwise be available to other modes. As a result (if nothing else is done), only a small number of modes near the peak of the amplifier's response actually end up having significant energy. Further, while the total output is controlled by the available power from the amplifier, the distribution of this power among the active modes varies with time, as the noisy nature of the amplifier's individual mode-pumping transitions happens to pump-up one or another of them more while they're all being attenuated by the loss of power through the output and other mechanisms. Finally, each mode oscillates separately, so there's no particular phase relationship between them (and the phases of each mode also drift independently with time). The amplitude variations correspond to a slight broadening of the spectrum of the individual modes, while the phase variations correspond to a slight wandering in frequency.

A small number of frequencies, each varying considerably in strength, is not too good for measuring light absorption. You could measure them to construct a moment-to-moment calibration. But there's a better approach.

This approach is "mode locking". One of those extras. a variable-refractive-index crystal, is inserted in the cavity and excited with a radio signal. The frequency of the signal is the DIFFERENCE between any two consecutive modes (i.e. the radio frequency for which the cavity length is a half-wavelength). This phase-modulator "detunes" the cavity's resonances except for waves with a particular phase relationship to the exciting frequency. So all the modes are phase-locked to the excitation frequency - and thus to each other. This is the "mode-locked" laser. It's usually done to produce narrow and tightly-controlled pulses. But for this device it's about producing a large number of stable colors, with the pulsing as a side-effect of how it's done.

Now (the dual of what I said above) a "comb" of equally-spaced frequencies, all in phase, is the fourier transform of a train of narrow pulses. The shape of the pulse is dependent on the number of teeth in the comb and their individual heights (i.e. the strengths of the signals at the various frequencies) relative to each other. This corresponds to a pulse of light bouncing back-and-forth through the cavity, passing through the phase-modulator at the moment when it is "tuned" correctly to let the cavity resonate.

The more "teeth" to the comb (i.e. the larger the number of different frequencies/colors of light) the narrower the pulse. The more equal the teeth, the closer to a pure rectangular pulse, i.e. the dimmer outside the pulse and the more level the pulse itself. So in addition to locking the relative phases of the various colors that form the comb's teeth, by attenuating out all but a narrow pulse the modulator forces the energy to be evenly distributed among a large number of colors rather than piled up in a few colors near the amplifier's peak. The input power controls the total output power while the phase-locking controls its distribution. So you get a lot of equally-spaced colors and their intensities remain very stable rather than varying with time. The phase-locking gives another benefit: By suppressing the phase wander it suppresses the corresponding frequency wander (as suppressing the amplitude wander also suppressed the line-broadening.) So with phase-locking the individual colors are very stable and pure.

So the phase-locked laser produces a broad spectrum of very pure individual lines of color at stable amplitudes and frequencies. Bouncing them off the diffraction grating produces a set of equally-spaced dots on the detector array - at stable locations due to the stable frequencies. The stable amplitude simplifies measuring attenuation of each by any absorption lines in the chemicals they've passed through. And the frequency spacing is close enough, compared to the width of the chemicals' absorption lines, that each such absorption line will attenuate at least one, and probably two or three, of the probe colors.

Just what you need to simultaneously measure the location and depth of a bunch of absorption bands within the width of the "comb"'s spectrum. B-)

Thanks. (1)

bornwaysouth (1138751) | more than 6 years ago | (#22498760)

Thanks for the various explanations. I really like technology. I last touched a flask at the end of the last millennium, and it looks like the science has really progressed. I was more into GC mass-spectrometry, and I do not care what they say about it being the gold standard (then). At the part per billion level, it was prone to false positives. We just loved finding co-metabolites to confirm the diagnosis and reduce our paranoia. (It was a regulatory lab.)

So very sensitive pattern matching was a dream, seldom achieved. This is cool stuff.

As for the specific application. Not to worry. It is simply sufficient that there be an excellent potential. When I was an undergrad (late 60s), lasers were talked about as a billion dollar solution to a problem no-one had found yet. 5 years later, they were making optical cables to shine them down. This is just another use for them. Way to go.

Thanks again for the info. Cheers from latitude 45 south.

But seriously folks... (5, Insightful)

mawhin (635345) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492496)

I'm sure we're many of us familiar with the story of a few months back about the nursing home dog (perhaps cat?) that appeared to be able to smell impending fatality amongst the residents. And I personally will not forget the smell of cancer on my father's breath before he died early.

It's not beyond reason that the chemical composition of the breath might be detectably altered by disease. Nor that sensitive enough equipment might be able to detect this early and cheaply enough to be usable as a screening method.

In the hands of medics, sworn to confidentiality, this could help avoid considerable suffering and early, pointless death.

I don't see it as a threat to civil liberties. It's like the hypodermic. It's been used for many years as a tool in the psychiatric opression of political dissidents, been used to murder, been used to torture and so on and so forth.

But would you honestly rather the hypodermic had never existed? Of course not.

A hammer can be used to hurt you. Would you have them banned?

Personally, I'm hopeful about this one.

Re:But seriously folks... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22497236)

In the hands of medics, sworn to confidentiality, this could help avoid considerable suffering and early, pointless death.

I don't see it as a threat to civil liberties. It's like the hypodermic. It's been used for many years as a tool in the psychiatric opression of political dissidents, been used to murder, been used to torture and so on and so forth.

But would you honestly rather the hypodermic had never existed? Of course not.

A hammer can be used to hurt you. Would you have them banned?

Personally, I'm hopeful about this one.

New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo said the nation's largest health insurers have rigged rates they pay for physician visits. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-insure14feb14,1,4908267.story [latimes.com]

Blue Cross of California quickly halted its practice of asking doctors to report conditions it could use to cancel new patients' medical coverage after a widespread wave of criticism. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/02/12/state/n011719S23.DTL&type=health [sfgate.com]

The 4th District Court of Appeal unanimously said insurers have a responsibility to make sure patients' policy applications are complete and accurate before issuing coverage -- not after expensive claims come in the door. http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2008/02/11/prsc0211.htm [ama-assn.org]

Just how stupid are you? In the current US health care system, the best way to make money is to not provide services. If someone gets sick, cancel their coverage. Maybe you'll get lucky and they will die before they can sue. Or you can conspire to rig rates so that you pay much less then procedures really cost, leaving the insured to cover the rest.

Ever been turned down for health coverage because of existing conditions? I have. Know anyone with a chronic condition (diabetes) who can barely afford medication? How about choosing between medication and dental care?

I used to work as a consultant. I can no longer afford to do this because of the cost and risk of having no medical coverage.

Now think what would happen if I blow into a tube and I can't get medical coverage because I might get cancer or might be at risk of heart failure? Suppose passing that physical is required before I get a job. You can have health insurance if you get the job, but if you have a health problem you can't get the job in the first place.

Your ignorance is astounding. The kind of abuse that you are denying already exists to a massive extent in the US health care system. Whoever gave you mod points for 'Insightful +5' is just as big a fool. As far as I'm concerned, all you deserve is to get really sick for a long time, loose your health coverage and be consigned to the hellhole that exists for public health care in this country.

What would it tell us? (1)

VoxMagis (1036530) | more than 6 years ago | (#22492502)

About the average Slashdot poster?

"I'm sorry sir, but we've determined that you've been dead for 3 years."

Hold your breath? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22492770)

Does this bring a new meaning to the phrase "hold your breath"?

Lots of possibilities (1)

crow (16139) | more than 6 years ago | (#22493296)

Many of the possibilities have already been mentioned. In particular, the nursing home cat that knew which patients were about to die. I've also heard stories of dogs that can smell cancer. I've observed dogs that recognize pregnancy even before the test. The problem with using animals, though, is that the training is expensive and difficult. You can't have a reliable cancer smelling dog at every doctor's office for annual screenings. But you can have a device.

Of course, there are always the privacy issues. With medical data, we're on track to handle them. Medical records are confidential, and employers shouldn't be able to get at them (though it gets tricky with self-insured employers). The issue with screening impacting insurance coverage is the same as with any other potential test--laws address (or should address) which tests (if any) are allowed for coverage screening.

There are the privacy issues of how this technology could be used without the knowledge of the user. What if the police had something like this for their breathalyser, but not only would it record the BAC level, but also detect any use of other drugs (illegal or prescription). Or just leave it running in a hallway and determine who has various issues without them ever knowing that a check was made. We can't stop the technology, but we can (and should) legislate how it can be used.

low cost natural natural substitute (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22494324)

All you need is one of these [bbc.co.uk] , and it also helps to keep the vermin at bay.

Obligatory Holy Grail quote (1)

treeves (963993) | more than 6 years ago | (#22494328)

Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead! [Hits gong]
Large Man: Here's one.
Dead Collector: Ninepence.
Old Man: I'm not dead!
Dead Collector: What?
Large Man: Nothing. Here's your ninepence.
Old Man: I'm not dead!
Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man: Yes he is.
Large Man: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.
Old Man: I'm getting better!
Large Man: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
Dead Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
Old Man: I don't want to go on the cart!
Large Man: Oh, don't be such a baby.
Dead Collector: I can't take him.
Old Man: I feel fine!
***
Large Man: Can't you check 'im with the Deathalyzer?
Old Man: Get that thing away from me!
Dead Collector: Aye, he'll be dead before Thursday. I'll be 'round again on Thursday.

I admit its off-topic, but its funny! (1)

Mad-cat (134809) | more than 6 years ago | (#22496428)

The term "deathalyzer"'s similarity to the breathalyzer reminded me of a very funny situation I came across in my career as a police officer.

While running a driver's license on a normal traffic stop, the computer came back with the message "Deceased." The photo on the license was obviously the driver, and our computers return the license photo with the records request, so I knew it wasn't a fake ID. So I went back and told him "Sir, I really don't know how to tell you this, but according to your license, you're dead."

He looked at me, then looked at the license in my hand, then he checked his pulse! Then he laughed and told me he knew all about the problem and had been fighting with the DMV for months over the error. We shared a good laugh and he got a "please drive a little slower" instead of a speeding ticket.

I suppose with the deathalyzer I would say "your license says you're dead, please blow into this so we can make sure."
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