Research Team Awarded $2M NIH Grant for Breath Analyzer that Detects and Monitors COVID-19, COVID-19 Induced Lung Injury

January 26, 2021

Xudong (Sherman) Fan, PhD Associate Director, MCIRCC Professor, Biomedical Engineering

Across the United States, there has been a marked increase in COVID-19 cases as many states tentatively reopen. This has resulted in a critical need for screening, diagnosing, and monitoring technologies that can process results quickly and can be used in both clinical and everyday settings. 

In December of 2020, a research team led by MCIRCC Associate Director and UM Professor of Biomedical Engineering Xudong (Sherman) Fan, PhD, received a $2 million two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to clinically test a portable breath analysis device that detects and monitors biomarkers indicative of COVID-19 as well as lung injury. The grant, awarded as part of the NIH “SCENT” program, will further propel the ongoing work Fan and his team have been conducting with gas chromatography technology in the setting of life-threatening lung diseases. 

Gas chromatography (GC) is an analytical technique used to separate the chemical compounds of a biologic mixture in order to determine their presence and quantity—such as measuring toxic substances in air, water, and soil. Exhaled breath contains hundreds of compounds that, when affected by diseases, create unique patterns called “breathomic signatures” that can provide clinicians with key information about disease onset and trajectory. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fan’s team had been working with Michigan Medicine to use their novel GC device to diagnose and monitor patients with the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)—now known to be one of the major causes of death in severe COVID-19.   

“A significant fraction of COVID-19 patients in the ICU need to be placed on mechanical ventilation, and many of them die from ARDS,” notes Fan. “It is critical that we identify disease onset early and monitor its trajectory over time, which will help us stratify patients and better allocate resources. In addition, it is important to monitor the patients’ response to treatment as well as any potential relapse.”

The GC device can provide continuous monitoring and analysis, even when attached to a ventilator.

Fan’s technology brings with it multiple benefits. First, the device is portable and can be used anywhere. It can even be attached to ventilators, allowing for continuous monitoring and analysis even when a patient is unable to breathe on their own. The device is also completely non-invasive and provides results quickly. “For a patient on a ventilator, the device provides an analysis every 30 minutes,” says Fan. “A patient who can breathe voluntarily simply breathes into a collection bag or a mouthpiece, and then the analyzer finishes its analysis in about 20 minutes.” These combined qualities make the breath analyzer ideal not only for diagnosis and monitoring, but for screening—the focus of the NIH SCENT program. 

In addition to Dr. Fan, the breath analyzer came about through the collaborative efforts of a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, engineers, and data scientists. MCIRCC team members include Robert Dickson, MD (MCIRCC Associate Director; Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine); Michael Sjoding, MD (Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine); Kevin Ward, MD (MCIRCC Executive Director; Emergency Medicine and Biomedical Engineering); Christopher E. Gillies, PhD (MCIRCC Data Science); and Sardar Ansari, PhD (MCIRCC Data Science). The project will be conducted in collaboration with the Henry Ford Hospital, with Jennifer Swiderek, MD, Medical Director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Henry Ford Hospital as a co-investigator.

“This project is another great example of how MCIRCC was able to quickly pivot its work in critical care and bring it to bear on COVID-19. MCIRCC’s Clinical Research Unit, Data Science Unit, and Proposal Development Unit were able to rapidly respond to the opportunity and played extraordinary valuable roles given the challenges in collecting data on critically ill COVID-19 patients and the need to integrate and collaborate remotely.”


The NIH “SCENT” program, fully titled “Screening for COVID-19 by Electronic-Nose Technology”, is a unique initiative that seeks to advance novel biosensing technologies that would make it possible for the detection, diagnosis, prediction, and monitoring of COVID-19 in clinical, community and everyday settings. With the support of this grant, Fan’s team envisions their device changing the landscape of how we manage COVID-19. “It’s going to allow us to screen and monitor at a much larger scale.” said Fan. The team is also looking at how the device can be applied to other infectious and non-infectious diseases.

“Early Detection of ARDS has been a long-standing clinical challenge. I am excited to see how this technology could positively impact COVID-19 and ARDS care.”



Drs. Fan and Ward have intellectual property on the GC technology through the University of Michigan which has been licensed by Go Blue Biotech, Inc. Drs. Fan and Ward have equity in the company.


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