Ordinarily, diabetes is diagnosed via painful and invasive blood tests. If research currently being performed at the University of Oxford is anything to go by, however, patients may soon just have to blow into a reusable breathalyzer-like device.

Previous projects have already indicated that elevated levels of acetone in exhaled breath are an indicator of diabetes. There are also various other compounds in our breath, however, so isolating and measuring just the acetone can be tricky. While it is possible to do so using a mass spectrometer, the machines are relatively large and expensive.

The Oxford team's hand-held prototype device, on the other hand, is compact enough to be used in a regular doctor's office.

It utilizes an adsorbent polymer to capture exhaled acetone, which is subsequently released into an optical cavity within the device. There, a near-infrared laser is used to measure how much acetone is present in the breath. If the numbers are high enough to indicate possible diabetes, the user is alerted. In lab tests on human volunteers, the device's readings were found to closely match those obtained via mass spectrometry.

A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Thanks to a different research project taking place at the University of Cambridge, it's also possible that breathalyzers could replace daily finger-prick blood tests for diabetics – by measuring isoprene in their exhaled breath.