Extensive tests used to check for cancer could be thrown out of the window in years to come, as researchers work to develop a revolutionary breath test which could detect the presence of cancer far earlier.
Scientists at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre have launched a clinical trial in collaboration with Owlstone Medical to test their Breath Biopsy technology.
The device, which is the first of its kind to investigate multiple cancer types, has the potential to provide a non-invasive look at what’s happening inside the body and could help to find cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective.
To check its effectiveness, researchers will collect breath samples from 1,500 people, and see if odorous molecules called volatile compounds (VOCs) can be detected. VOCs are produced when cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism – however if their metabolism is altered, such as in cancer and other conditions, cells can release a different pattern of VOCs.
As part of the trial, researchers will test Owlston Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology and see if it can identify these patterns in patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers, and later prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers. All the subjects will have to do is breathe into the test for 10 minutes.
Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre lead trial investigator Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald said a tool like this could be highly beneficial and help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients a greater chance of surviving the disease.
“Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier,” she explained in a statement. “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.”
If the technology proves successful, researchers hope the breath test could be used by doctors to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.
According to Owlstone Medical CEO Billy Boyle, breath-based testing could potentially sit alongside blood and urine tests in helping doctors to detect and treat disease in the future.
“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,” he said.
Cancer Research UK head of early detection research Dr David Crosby echoed his comments, claiming the test could help save the lives of many across the world.
“Technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionise the way we detect and diagnose cancer in the future,” Crosby added. “Early detection research has faced a 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.”