Swiss scientists have identified stable “breathprint” patterns similar to fingerprints that may advance personalized medicine.

According to research published today in the journal PLOS ONE, Dr. Renato Zenobi at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and his colleagues have identified highly specific biochemical profiles in exhaled breath that are unique to each person, similar to fingerprints.

The researchers studied the chemicals in exhaled breath from 11 study participants, collected four times per day over a nine-day period.

There were significant differences in the chemicals present in each person’s samples, as well as in samples taken at different times during the day from the same person. Despite these variations, scientists identified specific, core “breathprints” that could be tied to each owner.

“We found—and this is quite significant—that there is a stable breathprint pattern for individuals,” says Zenobi. “One could follow a person’s ‘exhalome’ over time and always observe a stable, core signature that is characteristic for him or her.”

These results suggest that breath analysis may become a valuable source of clinical information, similar to blood or urine tests.

Everyone is affected by variables like diet, health conditions, and environmental chemicals. For this reason, the researchers chose to examine metabolic phenotypes—exhaled compounds that include biomarkers from dietary, lifestyle, environmental, gut microbial, and genetic influences.

“There are hundreds of exhaled compounds, and many dozens of signals in the…patterns we analyzed,” Zenobi says. He and his fellow researchers highlighted those that showed clear individual differences “even to the naked eye, without complex statistical analysis.”

The authors note that with the advance of whole-genome sequencing, which allows doctors to examine a person’s entire DNA sequence, personalized healthcare is fast becoming a reality. Personalized care is based on specific information gathered for each patient and shared with all of his or her doctors.

For example, if you need emergency surgery in the future, determining the safest dose of anesthesia may depend on tolerance levels that have been established for you beforehand. “To have a metabolic indicator for this would be much better than ‘trial and error,’” says Zenobi.

A person’s individual pattern of breath compounds might change when he or she is sick, and may include biomarkers that scientists could use to pinpoint certain diseases. This knowledge could help doctors diagnose illnesses earlier, even in the course of routine exams.

Since 2011, there have been more than 3,600 studies published by the National Institutes of Health on using breath analysis to identify a range of conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, sleep apnea, diabetes, and lung infections.

The preliminary results of these studies are promising.

“We think the technology will be widely applicable,” Zenobi says. Establishing a stable breathprint for each patient will create a baseline profile doctors can use to make diagnoses and plan ongoing care.