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17 December, 2020 - 21:22 By Tony Quested

Owlstone breath solution offers detection hope for range of diseases

Unsurprising given how the COVID-19 virus spreads, 2020 has seen a rise in global interest for the fast-growing field of breath research. The pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of accurate and early diagnosis of disease. 

Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical Ltd (OML) has been working at the cutting edge of breath-based diagnostics since inception in 2016, with the goal of realising the enormous healthcare and economic promise of breath through the development and application of its Breath Biopsy® technology.  

Owlstone is supporting DRAGON, the International Medicines Initiative (IMI)-funded project exploring the potential to capture and detect COVID-19 on exhaled breath aerosol (EBA).

Breath biomarkers, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can originate from anywhere in the body and, alongside EBAs, have a have wide range of clinical applications. Breath, in contrast to other clinically-established sampling mediums, can be pre-enriched by taking a longer sample to detect low-levels of VOC biomarkers, making it uniquely suited for early detection – alongside being both non-invasive and pain-free. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the core problems Owlstone Medical was founded to address have not gone away. One in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes, where earlier detection has the potential to dramatically improve survival rates. 

Liver disease currently affects as many as 3 in 10 adults, but detection of even advanced cases remains challenging. 

Against this backdrop of extreme clinical need, diagnostics companies are receiving considerable attention and raising large amounts of capital. Notably, Grail was recently acquired by Illumina for $8 billion and Thrive by Exact Sciences for $2.15bn, both of which are developing blood-based diagnostic tests for cancer. 

Through Breath Biopsy, Owlstone is seeking to address this very same challenge, but via a sampling medium that the company says is far better suited to the early detection of disease. 

Owlstone reports substantial advancements in 2020, both in its platform and in its efforts to introduce products in the form of Panels and Tests to market in areas of high clinical need. 

Platform improvements included the incorporation of methods to detect and analyse EBA in addition to VOCs; and the development of EVOC® Probes which can be introduced from outside the body as targeted probes for disease processes. 

Other areas of major progress over the year include: the upcoming launch of a Respiratory Panel that supports research into COPD and asthma with an in vitro diagnostic to follow; in September, OML published a paper containing key results of a study using Breath Biopsy for the improved detection of liver disease; and has also progressed its programme to enable low-cost and non-invasive screening of individuals at risk of developing lung cancer. 

Owlstone says 2021 will be a transformative year for its technology with breath holding promise in diagnostics and increasingly being deployed in research settings to better understand the onset, advancement and treatment of disease.

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