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January 03, 2019

Cancer-detecting 'breathalyzer' begins large trial in United Kingdom

Exhaling into a mask for 10 minutes could ID telltale patterns of the disease

Illness Cancer
cancer breathalyzer Source/Owlstone Medical


Some illnesses are known to create specific body smells.

Typhoid fever reportedly reminds of freshly-baked bread, while whiffs of acetone, said to be similar to rotten apples, are evident on the breath of diabetics. Now, research suggests that a person's breath may be able to detect cancer, CNN reports.

Cancer Research UK is the driving force behind a two-year trial looking into a clinical device called the Breath Biopsy by Owlstone Medical to test that theory. Specifically, testing will examine if exhaled airborne molecules can be useful for cancer detection.

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To gauge the effectiveness of the tool, breath samples from participants will be collected in the clinical trial to see if odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be detected. They're testing specifically for VOCs because when cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism they produce a range of VOCs. If their metabolism becomes altered, such as in cancer and various other conditions, cells can release a different pattern of VOCs, according to  Cancer Research UK, a registered charity that funds cancer research. 

The hope is that the Breath Biopsy breathing mask can identify these telltale patterns.

Researchers will collect samples from 1,500 people, including healthy people as controls, to analyze VOCs in the breath to see if signals of different cancer types are detectable. The trial will begin by examining patients with suspected esophageal and stomach cancers. Eventually, researchers will expand their analyses to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers, the organization said.

Participants will breathe into the device for 10 minutes to provide a sample, which will be analyzed by an Owlstone Medical laboratory in Cambridge.

"We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease," Rebecca Fitzgerald, professor and lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said in a statement.

Almost half of cancers are diagnosed at a late stage in England, according to Cancer Research UK. Some reasons include patients' fears of invasive tests, a lack of knowledge of cancer signs and symptoms, and the lack of early detection tests for certain cancers.

A cancer breath test has huge potential to provide a non-invasive look into what’s happening in the body and could help to find cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective, the charity noted.

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