In the United States alone, there will be over 158,000 deaths due to lung cancer this year; over a quarter of all cancer deaths. Part of the reason this type of cancer is so devastating is because the lung tissue is extremely delicate, which makes it easier for cancer to take root, and symptoms are not caught until the disease has been given a chance to advance. A new paper published in the journal Review of Scientific Instruments describes work by a team of researchers from China who have developed a breathalyzer-like device to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages via certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Though it is still early in development, this device could save many lives in the future as an early diagnostic tool.
"Our results show that the device can discriminate different kinds and concentrations of cancer related volatile organic compounds with a nearly 100 percent accurate rate," lead author Jin-can Lei said in a press release. "This would also be a rapid method in that the entire detection process in our experiment only takes about 20 minutes.”
As a patient breathes into the device, a gas chamber analyzes the air. The device detects four specific VOCs that are connected to lung cancer: styrene, isoprene, p-xylene, and hexanal. The device is even able to tease out concentrations of these VOCS that are as low as 50 parts per billion.
Image credit: J. Lei/Chongqing University, China
Lung cancer screening is traditionally expensive and time-consuming as it requires the use of CT scans. However, switching to a diagnostic device like the one proposed in this paper would be much easier and faster, and the results have been fairly accurate so far.
“[G]iven a complete fluorescent-image database of all lung cancer related gases, this device could be used to identify and quantify various gases characteristic of lung cancer from people's exhaled air, " co-author Chang-jun Hou added. "This may lead to a simple, rapid breathalyzer for early diagnosis of lung cancer.”
Moving forward, the team will refine the algorithm used by the device in order to more accurately examine the molecular fingerprint produced by the VOCs. In the future, this breathalyzer might not only be able to detect the presence of lung cancer, but may even help to identify the stage of disease as well.
"The experiment shows that the fluorescent cross-responsive sensor can accurately distinguish the four cancer-related gases and discriminate the gas concentrations, ranging from 50 to 500 parts per billion," Lei explained.