DIAGNOSTIC PUFF MACHINE: Menssana Research chief executive Michael Phillips poses with an apparatus that collects breath that is then analyzed for the presence of a condition such as lung cancer or heart transplant rejection. Image: NAJLAH FEANNY
In 1971 Linus Pauling published a paper in which he analyzed the constituents of human breath. His study showed that an exhalation contained about 200 different compounds, many more than had been previously suspected. In the mid-1970s Michael Phillips, at the time a thirtysomething physician from Western Australia working on his fellowship at the University of California at San Francisco, read the paper with fascination. Phillips was looking for a field of research to which he could devote himself. "Pauling opened up a new area of science," he says. "I thought: if all of these compounds are there, they must be signaling something. This grabbed my attention, and I've pursued it since."
About a quarter of a century later, Phillips received preliminary approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a device that samples the breath of heart transplant patients for organ rejection in the first year after the operation, a supplement to regular biopsies. He hopes that last year's assent will soon be followed by endorsement from the agency to charge for the procedure. Checking breath would be potentially faster, simpler, cheaper and less invasive than biopsies or other procedures used to detect disease. Phillips's tiny company, Menssana Research, is considering development of breath analyses for ailments ranging from lung cancer to markers of biological aging. At the same time, he continues to battle deep-seated skepticism in the scientific community about the validity of Menssana's approach to creating a diagnostic breath sniffer.
This article was originally published with the title Breath Takers.