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External validation of exhaled breath profiling using an electronic nose in the discrimination of asthma with fixed airways obstruction and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease


N. Fens, Department of Respiratory Medicine, Academic Medical Centre, Room F5-260, University of Amsterdam, PO Box 22700, NL-1100 DE Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:


Background Fixed airflow limitation can be found both in asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), posing a day-to-day diagnostic challenge.

Objective We aimed to determine the external validity of metabolomic analysis of exhaled air by electronic nose for distinguishing asthma and COPD in patients with fixed airways obstruction.

Methods One hundred patients were included in a cross-sectional design: 60 asthma patients: 21 with fixed airways obstruction (fixed asthma), 39 with reversible airways obstruction (classic asthma) and 40 COPD patients (GOLD stages II–III). Standardized sampling of exhaled breath was performed and volatile organic compounds were captured using an electronic nose resulting in breathprints. External validity in newly recruited patients (validation sets) was tested using a previous and independent training set. Breathprints were analysed by principal component and canonical discriminant analysis and area under the curve (AUC) of receiver operating characteristic curves.

Results External validity of breathprints showed 88% accuracy for distinguishing fixed asthma from COPD (AUC 0.95, 95% CI 0.84–1.00, sensitivity 85%, specificity 90%) and 83% for classic asthma (AUC 0.93, 95% CI 0.87–1.00, sensitivity 91%, specificity 90%) (both P<0.001). Discriminative accuracy was not confounded by current smoking.

Conclusions and Clinical Relevance External validation of exhaled breath molecular profiling shows high accuracy in distinguishing asthma and COPD in newly recruited patients with fixed airways obstruction. Exhaled air analysis may therefore reduce misdiagnosis in obstructive airways diseases, potentially leading to more appropriate management.

Cite this as: N. Fens, A. C. Roldaan, M. P. van der Schee, R. J. Boksem, A. H. Zwinderman, E. H. Bel and P. J. Sterk, Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 2011 (41) 1371–1378.