Chemistry Professor Chuck Taylor and his student research team are pushing forward in their work to develop a faster, better method for identifying dangerous respiratory ailments that are often acquired in hospitals. In a recently published paper in the journal Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical, they show promising results from their breathalyzer-type instrument used to collect molecules from a patient’s breath.

Now they are expanding the list of pathogens they are seeking to identify using the instrument, all of which are known to be problematic to ventilated patients.

Hospitalized patients placed on mechanical breathing assistance can contract infections such as ventilator-associated pneumonia, or VAP. Catching the illness early on offers the best chance for successful treatment, but VAP typically isn’t noticed until the infection has already progressed to a serious stage.

The breathalyzer-type instrument would reduce the time spent in the lab growing cell cultures from the lungs to look for pneumonia-causing bacteria. Medical professionals would be able to analyze chemicals in the breath to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs), released as waste products of the infections microorganisms.

The latest research that Taylor and his student research partners Paige Oliver ’16, Soleil Worthy ’18, Emily Chang ’16, and Peter Rentzepis ’18 are developing includes being able to recognize the following pathogens: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, one of the main causes for pneumonia in hospitalized patients; Staphylococcus aureus which causes staph infections; and Candida albicans, which causes yeast infections.

“All of these pathogens may contribute to VAP in ventilated patients,” says Taylor.

Some students, like Oliver, have been working on this research project for a few years. Oliver’s thesis is focused on this same subject. “You get out of research what you’ve put into it,” she says.

In addition to expanding the list of pathogens the breathalyzer-type machine will recognize, Taylor adds, “We are exploring different sorbent polymers for improving our sensitivity and selectivity toward VOCs of interest.”

“We believe that the main impact of this method would be fewer deaths related to hospital acquired pulmonary infections,” he says. “This would, of course, be accompanied by reduced medical costs due to catching these pathogens before the infection is too severe. Fortunately, this technique would not be limited to pulmonary infections but given enough time, it could actually be used to identify nearly any type of infection.

The research is funded by a $600,000 National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation grant. The project is a multi-year effort.