Public Release: 

Chemical warfare agent detection technology used to treat lung disease

University of Manchester

A new technique based on the same technology used to detect chemical warfare agents and explosives is being employed by scientists at The University of Manchester to treat hospital patients with lung disease.

Dr Paul Thomas and a team of researchers are using a sensor, commonly used to detect explosives at airports, to develop a new way of diagnosing lung disease.

The microDMxTM sensor, developed by Sionex Corporation, is being used to develop a new technique which is able to detect 'unhealthy' molecules present in the breath of a patient.

The technology is currently being tested at Wythenshawe Hospital's North West Lung Research Centre (NWLRC). The aim is to produce a device which will enable doctors to monitor patients with lung or respiratory conditions by simply asking them to breathe into it.

The microDMxTM sensor is based on a Differential Mobility Spectrometer (DMS) and is a significant advance over the current Ion Mobility Spectrometer (IMS) systems which are currently deployed in airports to detect minute traces of explosives or drugs. The microDMx sensor is able to identify molecules that may be the cause of lung diseases such as cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by smoking.

Dr Paul Thomas from the University's School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, who is leading the research, said: "Our vision is that one day we will be able to detect a previously undetectable tumour metabolising inside a human lung simply by asking a patient to breathe into a device like this. For now our aim to use the microDMx sensor to develop better instruments which will improve patient care and treatment.

"The potential is such that we will not only be able to provide more accurate diagnosis, but we will also be able to tailor treatments to the individual. For instance, if a patient is taking steroids for asthma, we would be able determine whether they were being given the right amount of steroids from the molecules in their breath which relate to the severity of the inflammation in their lungs."

NWLRC Consultant Dr Dave Singh, said: "This research could make dramatic improvements to the detection of lung diseases. We are really excited about the future possibilities for diagnosing diseases, and monitoring the response to treatment."

The microDMx sensor can be used to detect and analyse a broad spectrum of molecules associated with different conditions with extreme sensitivity. It can also be configured to block out molecules produced by common ailments such as sore throats or chesty coughs which may interfere with the accuracy of data.

"What is unique about this sensor, and the use of the microDMx technology, is the fact that it can be configured to not just analyse one disease or condition, but it has the potential to be used to analyse a broad spectrum of conditions from asthma, to cancer and metabolic disorders such as diabetes," says Dr Thomas.

Dr Thomas' research will form part of a new National Initiative in Ion Mobility Spectrometry (NIIMS), which aims to explore the use of IMS measurement within the pharmaceutical and biomedical fields. Alongside Professor Colin Creaser from Nottingham Trent University he will lead a consortium of experts and industrial partners, who will be evaluating DMS and IMS potential in areas such as high-speed separations of complex mixtures and structural characterisation of pharmaceuticals and biomolecules.


Pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca have already pledged their support for the NIIMS initiative, along with Micromass UK, committing £530K.

For further information:

Simon Hunter, Media Relations Officer, telephone: 0161 2758387

Notes to Editors:

  • Pictures of Dr Thomas demonstrating how breath sample is taken are available on request.

  • The microDMx sensor is a microfabricated chip which operates as a programmable chemical filter allowing specific ion species to be selected and detected by the application of RF and DC electric fields. The older IMS technology which is used by the military and security services for the detection of chemical warfare agents, drugs and explosives has had little use beyond its use by the military and security services despite its ability to separate molecules on the basis of their shape and size. The DMS and microDMx technology however offers significant advantages over conventional IMS in terms of increased sensitivity and selectivity which make it more applicable for much wider range of applications outside the previous narrow focus.

  • Dr Paul Thomas is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Manchester's School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, which is part of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. He is also President Elect of the International Society of Ion Mobility Spectrometry and Treasurer of the Molecular Spectroscopy Group the Analytical Division the Royal Society of Chemistry. Profile:

  • Dr Thomas and his research team have spent the last four years working with support from Sionex Corporation,, developing a prototype of the device which they are now using to conduct preliminary trials in collaboration with North West Lung Research Centre. The aim of the initial collaboration is to collect data in order to build up a library of molecular profiles for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

  • microDMxTM is a trademark of Sionex Corporation

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