A molecule previously linked to lung injuries in factory workers producing microwave popcorn might play an important role in microbial infections of the lung in people with cystic fibrosis (CF), according to a recent study led by San Diego State University.

According to the researchers, the molecule, known as 2,3-butanedione (or diacetyl), can be detected in higher concentrations in CF patients than in healthy ones. The findings were published in The ISME Journal: Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology.

For the study, researchers measured the breath gases produced by both CF patients and healthy volunteers. Analyzing those gases, the investigators found elevated levels of diacetyl in the CF patients’ lungs.

Diacetyl has a buttery flavor and is the main ingredient in microwave popcorn flavoring. It’s toxic and has been implicated in damaging the lungs of popcorn factory workers.

Researchers theorize that various species of the oral microbe Streptococcus produce the diacetyl via a fermentation process. The molecule can also activate harmful effects of other bacteria that are common in the lungs of CF patients. For example, when the bacteria P. aeruginosa come into contact with diacetyl, it causes the bacteria to produce toxic compounds, which may be partially responsible for CF’s characteristic lung damage.

According to the study, researchers envision a new technology based on these findings that would act like a breathalyzer and detects the presence of diacetyl. By regularly monitoring the presence of the molecule in their breath, CF patients may gain an early detection signal indicating that an exacerbation is imminent, and then take antibiotics to prevent it from occurring.

“If you had a device to detect these metabolites, you’d know, ‘Oh, it’s time to take antibiotics again,” said postdoctoral researcher Katrine Whiteson.

Whiteson is currently working with the biotech company, Metabolomx, to develop a microchip that can detect diacetyl or other indicators of imminent CF exacerbations. “That won’t be the final weapon in the battle against cystic fibrosis; it’s a complex disease and the damage brought on by diacetyl is likely only one part of its profile. But it’s a good step,” she added.