In what could be considered a breakthrough innovation, asthma researchers have developed an electronic nose device that can accurately identify different subgroups of asthma in children, based on their biological characterizations. Correct diagnosis of the subgroup will aid doctors to suggest better interventions to manage childhood asthma.

The research will be presented Sunday at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Munich. The project was part of U-BIOPRED (Unbiased Biomarkers for the Prediction of Respiratory Disease Outcomes), a project that aims to develop better and faster methods for identifying and treatmenting asthma. Recent research has revealed there are several different kinds of asthma. By categorizing these subgroups into phenotypes — their individual characteristics — scientists will be able to identify the underlying pathophysiological pathways that cause them. This will allow them to design specific therapies that will be able to cater to each specific subgroup case-by-case, rather than through generic therapy.

For this study, the researchers analyzed the breath of 106 children who were known to suffer from wheezing or asthma. Each one of them exhaled into the U-BIOPRED electronic nose, which then analyzed their breath for particles called exhaled volatile compounds. This approach, of analyzing exhaled volatile compounds, has been used in the past as a noninvasive method to identify whether children with wheeze are transient wheezers, or if they will develop asthma.

The electronic nose identified five distinct subgroups of asthma in the exhaled volatile compounds. Patients with similar breath profiles were grouped into their own clusters. They found that differences in the clinical characteristics between clusters was associated with differences in age and asthma symptoms. In short, analyzing the exhaled breath with an electronic nose allowed the researchers to understand the differences between individuals with asthma, which could ultimately help with identifying subgroups of the condition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 6.8 million children suffering with asthma. Around 44 percent of asthma-related hospitalizations involve children. Projects like U-BIOPRED can help scientists design personalized medications that ease discomfort faster.

"We know electronic noses have the potential to help us understand more about a range of lung diseases," said Paul Brinkman, lead author of the study from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, in a press release. "In this study, we have shown that they are an effective method of understanding more about the subtle differences seen between people with asthma. By classifying asthma into different subgroups, we might be able to provide much more tailored treatment for each individual."

Source: Brinkman P, et al. Paediatric asthma: what is new for the clinician? At The European Respiratory Society International Congress. 2014.