A new test can detect opioids in a person’s breath, researchers report. A breath test could be useful in caring for chronic pain patients as well as for checking for illegal drug use.

“There are a few ways we think this could impact society,”

says Cristina Davis, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the University of California, Davis, who led the research[1] along with Michael Schivo from the university’s Medical Center.

Patient Monitoring

Doctors and nurses treating chronic pain may need to monitor patients to make sure they are taking their drugs correctly, that their prescribed drugs are being metabolized properly, and that they are not taking additional medications. Blood tests are the gold standard: a reliable, noninvasive test would be a useful alternative.

For the test postdoctoral researcher Eva Borras, Davis, and colleagues developed, subjects breathe normally into a specialized collection device. The device holds condensed droplets from breath for storage in a freezer until testing. Davis’ lab uses mass spectrometry to identify compounds in the samples.

The researchers tested the technique in a small group of patients receiving infusions of pain medications including morphine and hydromorphone, or oral doses of oxycodone. They were therefore able to compare opioid metabolites in breath with both blood samples and the doses given to patients.

“We can see both the original drug and metabolites in exhaled breath,”

Davis says.

More Work Needed

Fully validating the breath test will require more data from larger groups of patients, she says. Davis’ laboratory is working toward real-time, bedside testing.

Davis’ laboratory is working on a variety of applications for detecting small amounts of chemicals, especially in air and exhaled breath. Other projects include diagnosing influenza in people and citrus greening disease in fruit trees.

The UC Davis Medical Center’s Collaborative for Diagnostic Innovation, the US Department of Energy, and the NIH supported the work.

[1] Eva Borras, Andy Cheng, Ted Wun, Kristen L Reese, Matthias Frank, Michael Schivo, and Cristina E Davis. Detecting opioid metabolites in exhaled breath condensate (EBC). Journal of Breath Research, Volume 13, Number 4

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