IMAGINE THIS. You walk into a doctor's office to find out what's wrong with your body.

Need a blood sample? Nope. A urine or hair sample isn't necessaryeither.

Just a whiff of your breath.

Currently a device known as the E-Nose, or electronic nose, is being developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley using technology provided by Emeryville-based company Nanomix Inc.

"Instead of sending a sample to a laboratory where they do some kind of elaborate analysis and eventually give you a result, they'll just have you blow on this chip and have the results then and there," said David Macdonald, chief executive and president of Nanomix.

Neither party has disclosed exactly which diseases will be measured using this device, but in theory the sensors have the capacity to get a reading on any disease that can be transmitted through the air.

"What we like about the concept of the E-Nose is that you can design it and train it through algorithms to go after and detect pretty much anything that can be found in breath," said Bradley Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher who is working on the project at Berkeley.

Although the diseases don't have a smell per se, the device is named such because it functions the same way that a human organ would.

By blowing on a device equipped with this chip, the sensors can pick up a pattern of molecules, instantly analyze the characteristics of them and come back with an immediate reading.


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It's similar to a nose senses molecules and sends a pattern to the brain, which is then interpreted as a smell.

"It's really an incredible technology with an endless number of possibilities," Macdonald said.

Nanotechnology is an umbrella phrase used to refer to materials and devices that operate at a nanoscale. One nanometer is equivalent to one-billionth of a meter, approximately the size of a single molecule.

For a long time, nanotechnology was a trendy word that had a lot of ideas for possible uses attached to it but a limited number of products that found commercial success.

This is something Nanomix is trying to change.

"Really, the reason why there isn't a lot out there right now is that it is a relatively new technology that has yet to fully mature," said Bill Perry, a vice president of Nanomix. "Almost every expert has belief in this technology that is incredibly high, but it's just a time-frame issue."

Nanomix is a privately held, venture capital-funded firm that currently has about 35 employees.

While there are more than 1,000 companies focused on the science and research aspects of nanotechnology, Nanomix is just one of a handful of companies geared toward development and commercialization. Other examples include Emeryville's Nano-Tex, whose spill-resistant enhancements are used in clothing by Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean and Old Navy, and Palo Alto's Nanosys Inc., which is helping develop solar cells for solar power and fuel cells for use in laptops and cell phones.

In addition to developing its own products, Nanomix hopes to generate revenue through licensing the technology to other companies or research facilities.

Right now, one of the challenges is to carefully pick what products todevelop itself and which ones to allow others to develop.

Nanomix's proprietary detection platform used by the E-Nose is called Sensation, which is comprised of a chip that is 2 millimeters square. Each chip contains about a dozen sensors that have the ability to interact with a number of different devices.

Within the sensors are countless numbers of carbon tubes — each 80,000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair — that capture the molecules so they can be read.

Currently, Nanomix is in the late stages of developing a product that takes readings of carbon dioxide levels.

The devices could be used by ambulances to make sure a patient is intubated properly. 

For example, if a tube were inserted in a person to help him or her breathe, a reading could determine immediately if it went in the esophagus or trachea based on how much carbon dioxide is being emitted.

The Sensation product is a point-of-care product, which means that it can tell a doctor right away what kind of condition the patient is in.

"What was previously only available in a hospital now can be used on a street corner by an ambulance driver," Macdonald said.

Nanomix's technology has several selling points:

- First, the devices are very sensitive. Because the carbon nanotubes are so small, they can measure the smallest changes and give off a big response. Therefore, a disease that is in an early stage could be detected.

- Also, each sensor can be treated with a vast array of different chemistries so that they can be sensitive to a number of different molecules.

- And because they are small, instead of requiring large "power hungry" devices to run, the technology can function using just a watch battery.

- Because the sensors can be manufactured 2,200 at a time, the actual price of the products is much less than other diagnostic tools.

The carbon dioxide reading device would likely cost less than $20 if it makes it to market.

"Nanotechnology by itself is not worth anything," Macdonald said. "It's only if you can translate it into features that a customer is willing to pay for, where nanotechnology is important. And that's what we're trying to do."

David Morrill can be reached at (925) 416-4805 and dmorrill@angnewspapers.com.