Now breath tests can detect lung cancer

Simple breath analysis could detect lung cancer, no CT scans, no blood tests... that's the promise of a new study.


Currently for detecting lung cancer an individual has to undergo  blood and urine tests, and then CT scans or even chest X-rays. A  new method of just testing the breath they exhale could quickly assess presence of lung cancer.

It’s cheap and non-invasive and hence the usage could be widespread.

Prior research has documented the ability of animals to detect diseases just by sniffing the breath of a person. Science and technology has tried to mimic this ability through an “electronic nose” that detects the presence of certain compounds in the breath. These compounds can indicate the kind of disease the person has.  Since lungs are the source of the air being expelled out, lung cancer detection should be possible.

The research team led by Maris Bukovskis from the University of Latvia, were able to distinguish between people who have lung cancer and those who do not. Though the exact compound that points to the presence of lung cancer is still to be discovered, the breath analyser can quite correctly detect the presence of lung cancer.

The team  collected exhaled breath samples from 252 lung cancer patients, 223 patients with different lung diseases and healthy volunteers and 265 non-smokers and 210 smokers.

The scientists discovered that in non-smokers, the system correctly identified 128  lung cancer patients as having the disease. But there was a small error margin of 5 people who didn’t have cancer but were labelled as having cancer.  In the set of people who smoked, the “nose” properly identified 114 people who had lung cancer—but misdiagnosed 5 smokers as having lung cancer.

Bukovskis said: “We have shown that it is possible to use breath tests to correctly identify lung cancer with a high sensitivity rate. The results of our study take us one step further to understanding this important new technology. The major problem with electronic nose technology is that it is individual, and each piece of equipment must be trained to distinguish between odours. This causes a problem of standardising the practice between different centres. The next step will be to test the practice between different centres to help us think about how we can ensure consistency between all the results.”

Immanuels Taivans, another member of the team, said: “Our research has shown us why research into VOCs [volatile organic compounds] is important and how we could use this to understand more about the way diseases develop and progress.”



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