Equipment to monitor solvents inhaled by print machine operators is being adapted to develop a breath test for diagnosing diseases including cancer.
Dr Masood Yousef said it could save the NHS money
Researchers at Swansea University hope to create a more convenient and rapid method for spotting serious illness.
The idea of analysing certain compounds from breath samples to test for cancer, diabetes and other diseases is not new.
But researchers said many techniques have previously been seen as crude and unreliable.
Dr Masood Yousef, a senior research assistant at the university's Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating, is using existing technology to analyse the concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breath.
He said: "Studies have shown that high concentrations of certain VOCs in breath can correlate with disease.
"For example, the odour of 'pear drops' and acetone in relation to diabetes, ammonia in relation to hepatitis, and dimethyl sulphide to cirrhosis.
"There are also certain compounds that seem to mark out particular types of cancer."
He said if unique markers for specific diseases can be recognised earlier than traditional techniques, then there was "immense potential" to revolutionise early disease diagnosis before any symptoms have developed.
"Diagnostic techniques based on exhaled breath are much less developed than traditional blood or urine analysis techniques, and are not widely utilised in clinical practice," he added.
"Such techniques have also previously been seen as crude, subjective and unreliable.
"However, due to improved analytical methodology, volatile marker-based diagnostics offers new potential in the rapid diagnosis and monitoring of illnesses."
Dr Yousef believes that the breath test will provide a more convenient and rapid method for diagnosing serious diseases and will require minimal medical intervention.
He said: "Breath samples are much easier to collect than blood and urine, for the patient as much as for the person collecting the sample.
"Overall, the procedure is likely to be much more cost effective than conventional methods, potentially saving the NHS a great deal of time and money."
It is hoped the research will lead to the development of simple tools such as test strips that give positive results for specific illnesses, reducing the cost and level of expertise needed for diagnosis.
The equipment has been funded by a grant from the Welsh Assembly Government.