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The rocket men and their breathtaking invention


It’s a gadget straight out of Star Trek — a breath analyzer that may someday quickly and noninvasively detect everything from diabetes to cancers.

In a new Stanford Medicine magazine story, you can read about how three Stanford rocket-combustion experts — Christopher Strand, Victor Miller and Mitchell Spearrin — designed and tested a Breathalyzer-like device to measure toxic ammonia levels in critically ill children, all in about a year.

Breath testing with the human nose has been used in medicine since ancient times. (The rotten-apple smell of acetone is a sign of diabetes. A fishy smell is indicative of liver disease.) The rocket men in the story recognized the opportunity to develop a medical device that could transform this art into a science.

They figured that the technology they used in rocket testing, laser absorption spectroscopy, would be sensitive enough to make measurements of trace compounds in the breath. Just as engineers can use these data to tell if a rocket engine is operating efficiently, they could tell if a human biochemical engine is operating in a healthy range. Their project mentor, Gregory Enns, MD, a biochemical geneticist who diagnoses and treats metabolic diseases at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, helped the team get up to speed on metabolic disorders and remove bureaucratic roadblocks to clinical testing.

What was most inspiring to me about this story was the indefatigable optimism of the engineering team. The rocket men chose the most difficult molecule to measure (ammonia), a disease caused by a rare genetic defect with little commercial potential (hyperammonemia), and a hard-to-test patient population (infants). During the development process, they demonstrated the same mental toughness as abandoned-on-Mars engineer Mark Watney in the film "The Martian"; as each insurmountable technical challenge came up, they did what Watney did: “science the hell out of it.”

Previously: Stanford physicians and engineers showcase innovative health-care solutionsRaising awareness about rare diseases, Extraordinary Measures: a film about metabolic disease
Photo by Misha Gravenor

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