MAY 19, 2016 08:24 AM PDT

New Breath Test Sniffs Out Irritable Bowel Syndrome


From the dead skin cells that slough off, to the fallen strands of hair – people leave biological traces behind everywhere they go. Researchers can exploit these for a variety of diagnostic purposes. And though not immediately intuitive, a person’s breath also holds key biological information that can be used in diagnostics. Most recently, researchers have found that breath samples can distinguish people with and without irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a little bit of a black box diagnosis in medicine – doctors don’t agree on any one particular cause, and there’s no definitive diagnostic test. Yet, approximately 20 percent of the adult population supposedly has been diagnosed with IBS, a condition characterized by bloating, abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal malaise.
No reliable biomarker for IBS has been identified, until now. In analyzing breath vapors for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a team of researchers from the Netherlands found that IBS patients have a distinct profile than healthy controls.
For their case-control study, the team examined breath samples from 170 IBS patients and a total of 1,460 healthy subjects. Of the 1,460 healthy controls, the team collected samples from 1,307 people in the general population.
They found a set of 16 different compounds that reliably distinguished IBS patients from healthy controls. In particular, the 16 compounds predicted 89.4 percent of the IBS patients and 73.3 percent of the healthy controls. They also found that the concentration of volatile compounds correlated with the severity of an IBS patient’s symptoms.
"Now we know which chemicals in breath have diagnostic information that we can use to develop noninvasive tools to follow the disease and to steer therapeutic interventions," said Frederik-Jan van Schooten, the study's senior author. "This will definitely make a difference in quality of life for patients suffering from this functional gastrointestinal disorder."

Sniff tests for IBS have previously been conceptualized. These are mostly based on detecting gas byproducts from gastrointestinal bacteria. The reliability of these tests to diagnose IBS is questionable, as it doesn’t discern the healthy bacteria that are supposed to be in our guts, and the bacteria associated with IBS symptoms. So far, van Schooten’s technique is the only test to identify biomarkers specific to IBS.   
IBS is usually found in people under 45 years old, and is twice as common in women than in men. Patients with IBS can manage symptoms with medicines and diet, but so far no cure has been found for this mysterious condition. 

Additional source: MNT

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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