Wageningen University: Early detection of chronic diseases may be possible through breath test

For the first time, scientists are able to continuously measure the bacterial fermentation in human intestines. This may lead to the effective and targeted preventive and curative treatment of chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The Dutch Research Council (Dutch acronym NWO) has awarded funding in excess of one million euros for this four-year investigation.

In this project, Wageningen scientists collaborate with researchers from Maastricht University and Maastricht UMC+. In Maastricht, special airtight rooms will be outfitted with extra sensors that can continuously measure a subject’s breath to detect fermentation gasses. ‘A test subject stays locked in the room for several days’, researcher Dr. Evert van Schothorst explains. ‘The influx of fresh air is controlled 24 hours a day, and combined with the air that the subject exhales this is removed and measured.’

Measuring gasses
In the exhaled air, researchers will measure the gasses that are released during the process of fermentation. This includes methane, hydrogen sulphide, and hydrogen. This provides information on the fermentation of proteins and carbohydrates in the human digestive system, which is essential to our health. Van Schothorst: ‘We developed this method in animal models, and it is now being translated into measurements in humans.’

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The research investigates what impact nutrition, medication, and exercise have on our intestinal bacteria, metabolism and health. ‘In the future, we hope that chronic diseases such as diabetes may be prevented through altering eating behaviour’, Van Schothorst says. ‘But, we will first have to learn what the influence of bacteria in our intestines have on human physiology.’

In biochemistry, fermentation is the transition of organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Bacteria and fungi are known for their fermentation, although this process is also seen in some animal cells.

Our intestines contain trillions of bacteria that ferment undigestible foods such as fibres in whole grain products, legumes and fruit. These products cannot be digested in the first part of the intestine. The process of fermentation yields “products” that may have a beneficial effect on our metabolism, immune system and health, including that of our brain. Proper microbial fermentation is essential to our health.

The study is conducted with support from the Dutch Research Council and is a collaboration between Wageningen University & Research, Maastricht UMC+, Maastricht University (coordinator), Instrument Development Engineering & Evaluation (IDEE), Maastricht Instruments, Sensus and TSE Systems.