Breath testing for cancer

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Image provided courtesy of Owlstone Medical Ltd.

While there have been rumours of dogs and bees being able to detect cancers from the smell of peoples breath and urine for many years, a clinical trial using a breath test for cancer is being launched, but it doesn’t involve any animals.

The trail will analyse molecules that could indicate the presence of cancer at an early stage. This is the first test of its kind to investigate multiple cancer types.

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.  

Universal cancer breath test

Breath samples from people will be collected in the clinical trial to see if odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be detected.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: ‘Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier – it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology. Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy® technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.’

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. The researchers aim to identify these patterns using Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy® technology.

The researchers in the trial will collect samples from 1,500 people, including healthy people as trial controls, to analyse VOCs in the breath to see if they can detect signals of different cancer types. The clinical trial will start with patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers and then expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.

‘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,’ said Dr Fitzgerald.

By looking across cancer types, this trial will help unpick if cancer signals are similar or different, and how early it’s possible to pick these signals up. Some people will go on to be diagnosed with cancer, and their samples will be compared to those who don’t develop the disease.

Breath biopsies

If the technology proves to accurately identify cancer, the team hope that breath biopsies could in future be used in GP practices to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.  

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, said: ‘There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease. The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need.

‘Our technology has proven to be extremely effective at detecting VOCs in the breath, and we are proud to be working with Cancer Research UK as we look to apply it towards the incredibly important area of detecting early-stage disease in a range of cancers in patients.’

Recognising the importance of early detection in improving cancer survival, Cancer Research UK has made research into this area one of its top priorities and will invest more than £20 million a year in early detection research by 2019.

‘Technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionise the way we detect and diagnose cancer in the future,’ said Dr David Crosby, head of early detection research at Cancer Research UK.

‘Early detection research has faced an historic lack of funding and industry interest, and this work is a shining example of Cancer Research UK’s commitment to reverse that trend and drive vital progress in shifting cancer diagnosis towards earlier stages.’

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