Clinical breath analysis: Discriminating between human endogenous compounds and exogenous (environmental) chemical confounders

Joachim D. Pleil, Matthew A. Stiegel, Terence H. Risby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath originate from current or previous environmental exposures (exogenous compounds) and internal metabolic (anabolic and catabolic) production (endogenous compounds). The origins of certain VOCs in breath presumed to be endogenous have been proposed to be useful as preclinical biomarkers of various undiagnosed diseases including lung cancer, breast cancer, and cardio-pulmonary disease. The usual approach is to develop difference algorithms comparing VOC profiles from nominally healthy controls to cohorts of patients presenting with a documented disease, and then to apply the resulting rules to breath profiles of subjects with unknown disease status. This approach to diagnosis has a progression of sophistication; at the most rudimentary level, all measurable VOCs are included in the model. The next level corrects exhaled VOC concentrations for current inspired air concentrations. At the highest level, VOCs exhibiting discriminatory value also require a plausible biochemical pathway for their production before inclusion. Although these approaches have all shown some level of success, there is concern that pattern recognition is prone to error from environmental contamination and between-subject variance. In this paper, we explore the underlying assumptions for the interpretation and assignment of endogenous compounds with probative value for assessing changes. Specifically, we investigate the influence of previous exposures, elimination mechanisms and partitioning of exogenous compounds as confounders of true endogenous compounds. We provide specific examples based on a simple classical pharmacokinetic approach to identify potential misinterpretations of breath data and propose some remedies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number017107
JournalJournal of breath research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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