Humans create ethylene, also known as a plant hormone, naturally as a result of oxidative stress caused by UV radiation and other things. The researchers discovered that ethylene is created when there is inflammation in the body and is quickly released when exhaling. The presence of ethylene in the breath can be a biomarker of bacterial infection, according to the researchers.
In a study, small amounts of ethylene were detected by laser spectroscopy. The ethylene was released as part of inflammation because of a bacterial infection. It was detected in blood leukocytes and in controlled studies with healthy volunteers.
The researchers suggest that ethylene forms as a product of respiratory burst, which is a key component of the immune system. The body releases reactive oxygen species when it needs to fight invading bacteria. Bacteria and tissues take damage during this process. When lipids go through oxidation in the cell walls, ethylene emanation occurs.
“Our results highlight that ethylene release is an early biomarker of bacterial infection. In humans, ethylene was detected at least half an hour earlier than the increase of blood levels of inflammatory cytokines and stress-related hormones. For patients in intensive care this could mean a difference between life and death,” said Simona Cristescu, a researcher in Radboud University’s Institute for Molecules and Materials, said in a press release.
Often times, doctors have to take wound culture samples, blood samples and urine samples to be able to detect a bacterial infection, all of which can be invasive to the patient.
This discovery could also enable continuous monitoring, according to the researchers. Breath samples are easy for both patients and physicians to gather for analysis.
“The first possible application I see is continuous monitoring of patients that are on artificial respiration. These people have an increased risk of dangerous infections, and because their breath is already going through a machine, it is easy to monitor it for ethylene,” Laurent Paardekooper, a researcher at the Radboud University medical center and first author of the research paper, said.
The research team started a spinoff company from Radboud University’s Trace Gas Facility. The company markets a small device that allows hospitals to analyze exhaled ethylene in real-time.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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