Owlstone Medical and Actelion to breathe new life into pulmonary hypertension diagnosis

While startups offering blood tests have been receiving huge media attention - not all of it for good reasons - a British company has developed technology for the early detection of diseases through the analysis of breath exhalation. Owlstone Medical was founded by two alumni of Cambridge University, Billy Boyle and David Ruiz-Alonso, after Boyle's wife died from colon cancer following a late diagnosis. 

Breath Biopsy is Owlstone Medical's breathalyser, which the company says is capable of detecting specific diseases, measuring exposure to hazardous substances, and monitoring how drugs are being processed in the body. No blood or tissue samples need be taken, so it provides a completely non-invasive, pain-free method of testing.

Owlstone Medical's diagnosis is based on analysing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be detected in the breath, urine and other bodily fluids. In contrast to other research into diagnosis using VOC biomarkers, its technology is highly selective and sensitive to the specific VOC biomarkers for the disease of interest.

The company has now announced a collaboration with Actelion Pharmaceuticals to develop a  breath-based test to help facilitate the early diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. Actelion, a Johnson & Johnson company and a global leader in pulmonary arterial hypertension, is the sole funder for this programme. 

The collaboration will initially involve collecting VOCs from over 1,000 patients in the UK, US and other countries in the EU, and analysing them to identify those that are associated with pulmonary hypertension in order to develop biomarker signatures and to facilitate earlier detection of the disease.

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, said: "early diagnosis [of pulmonary hyperternsion] is difficult and so screening has to be simple, reliable, and cost effective. We believe Breath Biopsy will deliver a program from discovery through to the launch of a test to the market, and this novel approach will make a real difference for the healthcare of patients suffering from PH."