Physicist building nanotech sensor to track your health through your breath

In addition to reminding you to take your meds and tracking your steps, your smart phone may soon be able to tell you if that scent in your breath is due to the garlic from lunch or something much worse.

Sam Khamis

Sam Khamis

Adamant Technologies is working on a sensor that analyzes metabolites in the breath. The idea is to track changes in the body – lung cancer, diabetes – as soon as they start happening. Just as the Atossa breast cancer screening can track cellular changes in breast tissue, Adamant’s sensor could give a similarly detailed history of the body’s health.

Founder and CEO Sam Khamis started the company in 2011 and bootstrapped his way through the first year. In 2012, he got his first (and only so far) round of outside investment from Khosla Vetures of $2.5 million.

Khamis said that he is starting with measuring the metabolic rate and wants to do a usability study with this focus.


“What we can is measure from your exhale or how efficiently you’re burning calories and give feedback in real time,” he said. “You would be able to set a goal for your metabolic range and then you would know if you worked out too hard and were in fat storage mode.”

Khamis said that his sensor is the new core technology that can take mobile health where everyone says it’s supposed to go.

“The only devices that are out there today are accelerometer devices based on 30 – 40-year-old technology,” he said.

The current prototype is a very thin case that fits around a cell phone. There is a small sensor at the bottom and a port for a USB cable. Khamis said that a handheld option is also in the works. Nanotechnology drives the tiny sensor.

The sensor would be a detection device first, but Khamis is working toward building a full diagnostic device in the long run. The challenges and cost of an FDA approval is delaying that goal at least for now.

Khamis sees opportunities with asthma, tuberculous and melanoma. The sensor could predict asthma attacks about 20 minutes before they happen by monitoring inflammation of the upper respiratory system.
“Parents are constantly checking their child’s pulse oxygen and giving them steroids when they don’t need them,” he said. “The idea would be to minimize hospital visit and medication.”

Khamis said he also has considered doing a clinical R&D and then a trial in Australia to test the sensor’s ability to detect early stage melanoma. Australia has the world’s highest rate of skin cancer, and melanoma is one of the most common cancers affecting young people in that country. If a melanoma is caught early, the five-year survival rate is 95%. By the time the cancer progresses to Stage IIC, the five-year survival rate drops to 53%.

Another possible application for this life science innovation is detecting biomarkers for TB.

Khamis has spent the last year getting the technology ready to manufacture at scale. Now he is ready to gather data from people with asthma and skin cancer and build a database of smells. The next step will be to identify the chemicals in a particular smell and then associate those chemicals with metabolic changes. Khamis compared the process to the human nose.
“If you’re in a room with both pizza and coffee, you know both of those things are there because of the way your nose works,” he said. “We’ve designed our sensor to work the same way.”

The end goal is to build an algorithm on the sensor that is smart enough to learn to smell new things.

Before starting Adamant, Khamis ran a consulting company focused on measurement and automation, test socket development, MEMS and nanomaterials synthesis. He also cofounded Nanosense, Inc where he led research and development efforts on bio-inspired carbon nanotube devices. Under his technical direction, the team won $4 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Real Nose program.

Khamis has a PhD in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. While at UPenn, he invented a technique allowing carbon nanotubes and graphene to be integrated into standard semiconductor fabrication process lines.

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