While these results are only preliminary, the study1 published in the British Journal of Cancer today (Wednesday), found that sensors could distinguish between the breath of healthy patients and those who have cancer.
The sensors could also identify the type of cancer – lung, breast, bowel or prostate – irrespective of a patient’s age, gender or lifestyle.
But this study is at a very early stage; further tests with larger samples would be needed to determine the strength of the link between breath and cancer detection.
The results could potentially lead to the development of a low cost, easy-to-use, non-invasive and portable test to help diagnose cancer earlier in patients – something which doctors often struggle to do because of a shortage of reliable methods.
Professor Abraham Kuten, co-author of the study who is based at Technion Israel Institute of Technology, said: “This study shows that an “electronic nose” can distinguish between healthy and malignant breath, and can also differentiate between the breath of patients with different cancer types.
“If we can confirm these initial results in large-scale studies, this new technology could become a simple tool for early diagnosis of cancer along with imaging
“It could also be an easy way to assess and monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatment and detect relapses earlier.”
The study examined the breath of 177 volunteers – a mix of patients with different stages of lung, breast, bowel or prostate cancer and those who were healthy.
As a cancer grows, the surface of cells emits chemicals; the research found that sensors could be used to detect these chemicals in the breath.
The study was also carried out with cancer patients who had already been diagnosed by screenings or biopsies, so further research is needed to find out if breath tests will work in early detection.
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “It is important to say at the outset that this is a small study at a very early stage and much more research is needed to see if breath can be used in the detection of cancer.
“These results are interesting and show that there is the potential to develop a single breath test to detect these cancers.
“Strengthening the methods for early diagnosis of cancer as well as improved treatments will have a significant impact on cutting death rates.
“Breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancers are the four most common types of cancer in the UK. They often go undetected until the disease is well established and are the most common causes of death from cancer.”
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Peng, G. et al (2010). Detection of lung, breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers from exhaled breath using a single array of nanosensors British Journal of Cancer, 103 (4), 542-551 DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605810