(CBS News) A child's breath may reveal risk for diseases years before he or she gets sick.
Breath from obese children appears to contain different chemical compounds than the breath of non-obese kids, a researcher has discovered. He hopes his study could one day pave the way for a breath test at the pediatrician's office instead of a painful blood test, he said.
"I think breath testing has major advantages, especially in the pediatric population," study author Dr. Naim Alkhouri, director of the pediatric preventive cardology and metabolic clinic at the Cleveland Clinic's Children's Hospital, said to CBSNews.com. "It's like playing a game for kids. They really like it."
Alkhouri and his team asked 60 overweight and obese kids to breathe into a specialized collection bag as if it was a balloon, and then asked 55 lean children to do the same.
The researchers wanted to measure the concentrations of so-called "volatile organic compounds," or VOCs, that are contained within breath samples. When people breathe, they expel hundreds of these VOCs that are byproducts of the metabolic breakdowns that occurs in our bodies.
Alkhouri and his team coined these measurements as "breathprints" of an individual. Having a certain disease can change the makeup of these breathprints, he said. Alkhouri points out that the human nose can't tell the difference between the smells.
The work was presented May 18 at the Digestive Disease Week meeting in Orlando, Fla. and is considered preliminary since it has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
After giving children the breathing tests, the researchers ran their samples through a mass spectrometer, a machine that identifies different compounds in a sample based on its size, or mass.
They found differences in the concentrations of more than 50 compounds when comparing the breathprints of lean children with those of overweight and obese kids. By looking at the breathprints alone, the researchers were able to determine with 92 percent accuracy whether a child was overweight or obese.
A doctor can also determine whether a person is obese with a scale and a quick once-over, so what's the benefit of the breath tests?
Alkhouri explained that other research his team is working on showed some of the VOCs can be markers for potential complications associated with obesity, such as diabetes and fatty liver disease. That suggests that a doctor can give a child a breath test and be able to tell parents what diseases he or she risks if they don't get their health in shape.
About one-third of U.S. children are obese or overweight, with about 17 percent being considered obese. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in turn raises their risk for adult health woes such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and joint and bone problems.
Rather than subject these children to repeated blood tests, such as the cholesterol lipid screening test the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for all children before puberty, the breath test may provide accurate assessments of health risks without causing the child pain.
One example of how the findings can be implemented is in an upcoming study Alkhouri's team is working on, in which a child is given a low-fat diet to see if concentrations of VOCs change.
"Maybe by altering these [metabolic] pathways, maybe we can prevent some of these complications," said Alkhouri.
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