Researchers at Stony Brook University have been awarded a nearly $600,000 federal grant to help develop a low-cost, handheld device that can monitor asthma at home.

The monitor, expected to cost between $20 and $50, would use ultratiny sensors to measure the amount of nitric oxide, an indicator of airway inflammation, in a single breath, researchers say. An asthma sufferer could check for elevated levels, and decide whether to take medication or see a doctor.

The research involves fashioning sensors using nanotechnology, the science of dealing with particles that are 1 million times smaller than the length of an ant and which can be manipulated by researchers.

"This is revolutionary. . . . Because of nanotechnology, this is possible. No other technology is so fast, so inexpensive," lead researcher Perena Gouma of Stony Brook said in an interview Monday.

She said the device would be particularly helpful in testing the elderly, young people and homebound patients.

Traditional asthma testing in hospitals and doctors' offices involves machinery costing up to $10,000 and requires the assistance of medical personnel, she said.

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The National Science Foundation awarded the grant of $599,763 for the study last month to Gouma, director of the school's Center for Nanomaterials and Sensor Development, and her colleagues: Milutin Stanacevic of the department of electrical and computer engineering, and Sanford Simon of the departments of biochemistry and cell biology and pathology.

The project is called the "Personalized Asthma Monitoring Detecting Nitric Oxide in Breath," and takes to a new level the general concept of the alcohol breath test used by police to measure the level of alcohol in a driver's body.

Nitric oxide is what scientists call a "biomarker," and Gouma's team will develop standards and methods for the testing, including standards for how the sensors measure the amount of the nitric oxide in an exhaled breath.

The technology opens the door to future in-home testing devices for other ailments, such as bronchitis, she said.

The asthma device could be on the market in a few years, she said, depending on the level of interest in the marketplace.

"It's just a matter of commercial licensing," she said. "The technology is there. We don't have to invent a lot of things."