New Test Can Identify Cancer With Just A "Sniff" Of Your Breath

Adenocarcinoma of the stomach and intestinal metaplasia. Nephron/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

A new test could tell if you have esophageal or stomach cancer just by a whiff of your breath, offering a revolutionary and easy way to reach an early diagnosis of these hard-to-diagnose cancers.

Scientists at Imperial College London have developed a “blow in a bag” test that can diagnosis esophageal and gastric cancer in a single breath with over 85 percent accuracy. Typically, these cancers are diagnosed using an endoscopy, a fairly unpleasant procedure where a long, thin camera is put down your throat. They are also relatively expensive. However, this new tool is easy, totally non-invasive, and low cost.

As reported in JAMA Oncology, over 335 patients took part in a clinical trial, including 163 patients already diagnosed with cancer. The researchers are pleased with the results but say they need to do further investigations to improve the accuracy of the test.

So, how does it all work? Your breath contains thousands of things called volatile organic compounds (VOC). Scientists are not yet 100 percent certain why, but specific VOCs appear in the breath of people with certain diseases and can act as a biomarker for cancer. This test uses a mass spectrometry instrument to look for concentrations of these VOCs in the breath sample. Sniffing out VOCs is also how animals such as dogs and fruit flies are able to identify the presence of some cancers.

Gastric and esophageal cancers account for 15 percent of cancer deaths globally. The survival rate is low because both cancers are usually diagnosed in the advanced stages as symptoms only become noticeable once the disease progresses. Fortunately, this test can pick up on worrying signs of the disease very early on.

“Gastric and oesophageal cancers are mostly diagnosed at a late stage when curative treatment might not be possible,” Professor George Hanna, lead author of the study at Imperial College London, said in a statement.

“There is a real need for early detection of cancer when symptoms are non-specific and shared by benign diseases. Our breath test could be used as a first-line test before invasive investigations. Early detection of cancer gives patients more treatment options and save more lives.”

Similar tests have also been developed to also sniff out diseases such as ovarian cancer, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis, and even lung cancer.

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