Early detection of bacteria in the lungs using a non-invasive breath test

Determine an effective breath testing diagnostic of harmful bacteria through an analysis of mucus in the cystic fibrosis lung

Dr Amy Scott-Thomas
University of Otago, Christchurch

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a common life-threatening genetic disease that is estimated to affect over 400 New Zealanders, where just under half of these are children. Cystic fibrosis can be an extremely debilitating disease with symptoms including failure to gain weight, abnormal bowel movements and lung disease resulting in a shortened life span. Complications from lung disease are a common problem and can be made worse by the growth of bacteria in the lung, like Pseudomonas aeruginosa . The thick mucus in the CF lung allows P. aeruginosa to grow with ease. Unfortunately, the presence of P. aeruginosa in the lung is a major cause of poor health.

The first time it presents in the lung, it is non-mucoid, meaning it is not yet sticky. If detected at this stage, the bacteria can easily be killed with antibiotics. However, if the bacteria go undiagnosed it will become mucoid, producing sticky blobs that clog up the airways. Once it is mucoid it is very hard to remove from the lung, therefore early detection is fundamental for effective treatment. Unfortunately, current tests to detect lung infection are invasive, painful and inaccurate. This study aims to develop an advanced diagnostic breath test that is non-invasive, quick and sensitive for the detection of non-mucoid P. aeruginosa.


How will the research improve the outcomes for CF patients?

When P. aeruginosa is growing in the lung it releases certain odours called volatiles. These volatiles can be detected using a breath test. This study will look at identifying the type of infection (non-mucoid vs mucoid) by analysing the different smells released by the growing bacteria. Developing a breath test that can quickly detect a non-mucoid infection will allow appropriate antibiotics to be administered in a timely fashion, improving the health and quality of life of children (and adults) with cystic fibrosis.