The University of Manchester and Owlstone Medical, Cambridge, UK, have announced the award of a joint grant from Asthma UK and Innovate UK for the improvement of asthma diagnosis.

Under the Asthma UK and Innovate UK funding initiative, which seeks to broker research collaborations between academia and UK industry to develop new tools that can accurately diagnose asthma and its subtypes, the University of Manchester will receive £249,950 to fund a 3-year study. Within the study, Owlstone Medical will deploy its novel breath biopsy platform to collect breath samples from asthmatic patients and healthy controls. The samples will then be analyzed to identify breath-based biomarkers for the definitive diagnosis of asthma and to guide effective front-end treatment decisions.

Breath biopsy represents a new way to measure the chemical makeup of breath by measuring volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—gaseous molecules that can be sampled quickly and noninvasively from breath. Such compounds are produced as the end product of metabolic processes within the body, meaning that underlying changes in metabolic activity can produce particular patterns of VOCs characteristic of specific diseases.

VOCs originating from all parts of the body are captured in breath, making breath biopsy applicable to a wide range of diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disease, infectious disease, metabolic disease, and respiratory disease. The nature of breath biopsy and VOC biomarkers make them suitable for addressing two of the major goals of healthcare: early detection and precision medicine.

Breath collection is carried out using Owlstone Medical’s ReCiva breath sampler, which ensures reliable, reproducible collection of VOCs. Subjects breathe a controlled supply of air, and samples of their exhaled breath are captured and stabilized on breath biopsy cartridges, which can then be shipped for analysis with Owlstone Medical’s breath biopsy analytical platform, using mass spectrometry or field asymmetric ion mobility spectrometry (FAIMS) to determine their VOC profile. Advanced data analytic techniques can then be applied in order to pinpoint the VOCs of interest.


Billy Boyle, Owlstone Medical.

Although asthma is an extremely common condition, diagnosis can be challenging, as there is presently no reliable and definitive diagnostic test available. Current guidelines recommend that asthma be diagnosed based on clinical judgement, combining the presence of symptoms suggestive of asthma with results in the most commonly used pulmonary tests (spirometry, peak flow variability, bronchodilator reversibility) and the fraction of exhaled nitric oxide, which focus primarily on the large airways. While such tests have been used for many years, evidence shows that they are poor at diagnosing asthma, because asthma affects both large and small airways, and it is now recognized that the small airways are just as important for establishing a clear diagnosis.

Breath is emerging as a highly promising way to directly measure metabolites reflecting underlying disease activity. Such a noninvasive approach can provide important information relating to both large and small airway function that can offer a ‘window’ into the lung health of an individual, including identification and monitoring of disease. The University of Manchester is at the forefront of applying the chemistry of exhaled breath, and has partnered for this study with Owlstone Medical, which developed breath biopsy, a reliable and noninvasive method for the collection and analysis of VOCs in exhaled breath.

The University of Manchester–Owlstone Medical project has several aims, including using breath-based biomarkers and measures of small airway function to enable the rapid, accurate, and low-cost diagnosis and monitoring of asthma; to better classify different forms of asthma, their progression, and effect on airway inflammation; and to predict early if someone is likely to respond to treatment with inhaled corticosteroids.

”Our partnership with the University of Manchester builds on prior work Owlstone Medical has done as part of the Strata trial,” says Billy Boyle, cofounder and CEO at Owlstone Medical. “Also funded and supported by Asthma UK and Innovate UK, Strata was designed to conduct research into the use of VOCs in patients’ exhaled breath as a way to select the best individualized treatment. We remain committed to deploying breath biopsy to help the 5.4 million people with asthma in the UK and estimated 339 million worldwide who could benefit from personalized healthcare.”

“Many of us either are or know asthma sufferers, so are only too aware of the pressing need for better diagnosis and improved, personalized treatments,” adds Kath Mackay, PhD, interim director for aging society, health, and nutrition at Innovate UK. “This new funding will allow innovative businesses to work hand-in-hand with the very best researchers to bring forward these much-needed breakthroughs. By choosing to work in partnership with leading charities, such as Asthma UK, we can connect businesses to the resources that the charities may have. This can be access to patients, new ideas, and the ability to generate real-world evidence.”

For further information, visit Owlstone Medical.

Featured image: The ReCiva breath sampler from Owlstone Medical.