Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a devastating respiratory failure with lifelong and inimical consequences for its survivors. Its symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid breathing and bluish skin coloration.

More than 200,000 people develop ARDS and 74,000 die of the condition every year in the United States, according to data from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The primary treatment for ARDS involves the use of mechanical ventilation devices. People with ARDS usually require intensive care treatment and support from mechanical ventilators until their lungs heal.

Early and accurate detection of ARDS, however, is also a paramount concern among physicians and can be a matter of life or death.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan (UMich) at Ann Arbor developed a fully automated portable breath analyzer that can diagnose ARDS with an accuracy verging on 90 percent in around 30 minutes. The shoebox-size device promises to increase rates of survival and reduce healthcare costs for people with this life-threatening lung condition that kills almost a fourth of its victims.

The researchers said the timely diagnosis and tracking of ARDS is very challenging because the condition can alter and progress rapidly. ARDS also has several possible causes that have to be taken into account.

"The most commonly used ARDS prediction tools are only correct about 18% of the time," Xudong Fan, a co-senior study author and a professor of biomedical engineering at UMich, said.

In contrast, he and his colleagues showed their fully automated portable breath analyzer can diagnose ARDS with an accuracy of close to 90 percent in about 30 minutes. Researchers tested the breath analyzer on 48 volunteers, who were receiving treatment for ARDS at the University of Michigan hospital.

Of the volunteers, 21 had ARDS while the others served as controls.

"We've found that if our device tells us the patient is positive for ARDS, it's highly likely that they're positive,” said Prof. Fan. “We are able to detect the onset and improvement of the condition before traditional changes in X-rays and blood testing would occur.”

The technology in the device uses gas chromatography to analyze nearly 100 molecules in exhaled breath. It captures a sample of breath through a tube that connects to a mechanical ventilator's exhalation port.

The results of the analysis allow doctors to test for ARDS and to also determine how far advanced the condition is. The device can also monitor treatment progress after diagnosis.

The UMich team described the development and testing of the compact new technology in a paper published in the journal, Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

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