Researchers develop asthma-detection technology

Stefan Bossmann, professor of chemistry, poses for a University photo for his help in cancer research in 2015. (Courtesy of K-State Department of Communications and Marketing)

About 10 Americans die from asthma every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and K-State researchers are trying to change the way asthma and other respiratory diseases are diagnosed by developing technology that will allow patients to use smartphones to diagnose themselves.

Stefan Bossmann, professor of organic chemistry, said the research will result in a “fast and simple test” that will help detect lung inflammation as well as analyze the cause behind the inflammation. This will be accomplished through the detection of biomarkers, which the body releases when tissue inflammation occurs as part of the body’s immunological response, using inexpensive breath measurement strips that can be attached to smartphones.

“This research matters greatly because there is no point-of-care device that can quickly and efficiently test a person for lung inflammation,” Faith Rahman, senior in medical biochemistry and researcher in Bossmann’s lab, said. “The public will be able to buy this device and test themselves for inflammation.”

The smartphone-based test will allow for greater precision in diagnosing respiratory disease, Bossmann said.

“(This technology) would give you a definite answer of what you have, which then allows for the right kind of treatment because, right now, people might get antibiotics to treat what they think they have, but it might be an oversensitivity of the immune system or an allergy or something else entirely,” Bossmann said. “It comes down to the fact that many of these patients are not being treated right.”

Misdiagnosis is a problem at all stages in life, Bossmann said. Only about half of all lung diseases in children are correctly diagnosed.

“It goes through the whole course of life,” Bossmann said. “We have a lot of veterans with Gulf War syndrome. One of the manifestations is that they can’t breathe, but it’s for different reasons than somebody who has classical asthma.”

Current tests fail to accurately and quickly determine the cause of respiratory diseases, Bossmann said. The diseases could be caused by genetics, environmental factors or tissue remodeling in the lungs.

Australian researchers examined respiratory issues in 100 Australian children and found that out of the 50 children who had been diagnosed with asthma, only five actually had the disease, according to a study done by Andrew Bush and Louise Fleming titled, “Is Asthma Overdiagnosed?” published earlier this year in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. The study further stated that the medication in inhalers used to treat asthma can have side effects which allow for a greater chance for respiratory infection.

To accurately diagnose asthma, the researchers performed a procedure called a bronchoscopy, in which a tube is inserted into the patient’s throat to visually observe for inflammation. They clarified, however, that the procedure should not be used as a “routine diagnostic test.”

Bossmann said that although the test will put the power of diagnosis in the hands of the patient, the technology would not undermine the value of a visit to the doctor.

“Self-diagnosis is not always the best way to go,” Bossmann said. “We envision a system where the application software gives you an initial result, but then, if you choose to do so, you can be tested at a clinic as well. The main idea is that you get the information first. It’s yours, and you decide what to do with it.”

Bossmann compared the future technology to pregnancy tests in that the results remain private to the patient.

“You should not broadcast this to the universe,” Bossmann said. “This is the case with any disease. Whether it’s asthma or cancer, it’s always very, very personal and the patient has the right to decide whether they’d like to be a part of the head-scanning machines.”

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, over 25 million Americans are believed to have asthma.

“Asthma is one of the most common health problems in the United States – and it can significantly affect patients’ lives – at school, at work, at play and at home,” Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in a 2007 press release.

Bossmann said the technology, which is being developed in conjunction with researchers at the University of Texas, has the potential to be revolutionary once it is finished and tested by independent experts.

“If this research is validated, and we hope to be there in five years, we could revolutionize the way that a lot of diseases are detected,” Bossmann said. “Pulmonary disease is one example. Cancer is another. There will be easy point-of-care devices, which really tell a patient what’s going on with her or him.”

Yubisela Toledo, senior in biology and researcher in Bossmann’s lab, said the technology will be a solution for people in need of a diagnosis.

“Oftentimes, when you think you might have a disease, it’s hard to think about a solution right then and there,” Toledo said. “We’re giving them an alternative to that. We’re giving them an opportunity, a solution for the future.”

I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a 2019 K-State graduate in journalism and former editor-in-chief of the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email the Collegian team at