How can liver disease be detected using breath?

Healthcare illustration Liver disease is a silent killer. Symptoms often only appear at a late stage, by which time it is too late to treat.

Statistics show that 90% of liver disease is preventable, however it can be challenging to detect as liver function can appear normal at many stages of the illness.

Our scientists have unambiguously identified that levels of Limonene – a chemical compound commonly found in citrus fruit - in exhaled breath can be used as a biomarker to detect liver disease. Limonene is ingested through normal diet, entering the bloodstream through the stomach and subsequently appearing in trace quantities in exhaled breath - providing a probe to the health of the whole liver.

Working with companies including Owlstone Medical, our researchers are now involved in developing breath biopsy technologies that will more quickly, safely, and cheaply detect liver disease than ever before.

How can liver disease be detected using breath?

The liver disease crisis

According to the British Liver Trust, liver disease is on the rise. Since 1970, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400%.

Worldwide, nearly a billion people have chronic liver disease, and approximately two million die from the illness globally every year. If the trend continues, we can expect this number to at least treble by 2050. Early detection is therefore crucial.

Liver biopsy is currently the 'gold standard' used to diagnose liver disease. However, this procedure is invasive and can cause significant complications. There can also be problems with sampling, due to the non-uniform distribution of liver disease.

Liver disease has a widespread effect not only on the patient, but also on wider society. Our work, which lays the foundation for the early detection of liver disease, holds the key to reversing the trend of increasing mortality rates caused by liver disease.

Developing more effective early detection of liver disease

Our research has not only led to the discovery of a reliable and non-invasive test for liver disease, but it could be used to monitor liver function and to determine the effectiveness of new drugs for liver disease that are coming onto the market.

It holds enormous promise for improved healthcare, the implications of which are far-reaching both for patients and for healthcare providers.

Partner with us

We are always keen to develop new ways to work with other universities, healthcare organisations and industry to improve health outcomes.

Please contact: Professor Christopher Mayhew, on +44 1214148460 or

Meet the experts

Chris MayhewProfessor Christopher Mayhew

School of Physics and Astronomy
Professor of Molecular Physics


Dr Margaret O'Hara Dr Margaret O'Hara

School of Physics and Astronomy
Daphne Jackson Trust Fellow


Raquel Fernandez Del RioDr Raquel Fernández del Río

School of Physics and Astronomy
Marie Curie Fellow