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18 June, 2019 - 11:12 By Tony Quested

Owlstone adds innovative probes to disease diagnostic suite

Cambridge inventor of the disease breathalyser, Owlstone Medical, is launching a terpene probes addition to its diagnostic suite in a renewed push for genuine personalised medicines.

Owlstone Medical’s Exogenous VOC (EVOC) probes are safe compounds – largely food additives – that when administered orally undergo metabolism in the body and are excreted via breath, offering a readout of metabolism by enzymes and organs. 

This approach enables high levels of compounds to be administered, such that fold changes in levels are much more visible, with substantially improved signal-to-noise ratios over those that come from endogenous sources.

An Owlstone source told Business Weekly that the specific formulation of the probes was being investigated right now and will likely be application specific.Owlstone says EVOC probes represent an important advance to support the implementation of Breath Biopsy in a wide range of applications.

Recently published in the Journal of Breath Research, the potential of EVOC Probes to explore metabolic pathways is described, along with the potential of Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy EVOC Probes Research Kit to help transition breath testing from the lab into the clinic.

Exhaled human breath contains over 1,000 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals can originate from within the body (endogenous) but also can come from external sources such as diet, prescription drugs and environmental exposures (exogenous). 

To date, VOC-based breath research has focused on the identification of endogenous VOCs as disease biomarkers; however few tests based on this approach have made it to the clinic.

There are multiple reasons this is the case, which Owlstone Medical is directly addressing through its Breath Biopsy platform and through large and robust clinical trials run on behalf of clients or its own studies to identify and validate endogenous biomarkers.

Now, to broaden the range of tools available to address high need areas and to accelerate the launch of commercial tests, the company has pioneered the use of EVOC probes to investigate the onset, progression, and treatment of disease.

The concept of administering exogenous probes to assess metabolic function in the body on breath has been applied previously but has been limited to stable isotope-labelled probes. 

Owlstone Medical’s novel approach is to develop and deploy a range of externally administered compounds that fall under the FDA GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list and through breath analysis, explore how they are absorbed, metabolised or excreted to give a direct measure of metabolic activity and organ function.

The compounds that will be incorporated into EVOC Probes operate through known metabolic pathways and so measurement of their breakdown provides direct insight into the functioning of that pathway. 

Further, as these compounds are not normally present on breath, their detection and measurement provide a very clear signal that offers the potential for a new wave of substrate-based breath tests.

Three early areas of focus for Owlstone Medical in the application of EVOC Probes are drug metabolism, liver function, and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) and Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH).

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, said: “EVOC Probes represent a powerful new approach to breath-based diagnosis. 

“By deploying this complementary technology alongside endogenous VOC biomarker discovery efforts as part of our Breath Biopsy platform, Owlstone Medical is now able to bring a much broader range of tools to bear in solving the challenge of the earlier detection of disease and the more efficient and effective discovery, development, and use of novel therapeutics.”

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