New Breath-Based Test to Detect Multiple Cancer Types – Currently Under Clinical Trial

A new ten-minute breathalyzer-like test for several cancer types is currently undergoing a clinical trial to evaluate its effectiveness

New Breath-Based Test to Detect Multiple Cancer Types - Currently Under Clinical Trial

Doctors at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute have, apparently, made a revolutionary medical breakthrough by devising a ten-minute breath biopsy for the early detection of several types of cancer.

Developed by study sponsor, Owlstone Medical, a British company specializing in breath-based clinical diagnostics and precision medicine, the breathalyzer is currently undergoing a clinical trial called “PAN Cancer Trial for Early Detection of Cancer in Breath.”

“Owlstone Medical will be funding the trial directly, however, none of this would be possible without the support and infrastructure provided by Cancer Research UK,” the company said in a statement.

Led by Prof. Rebecca Fitzgerald – MRC Programme Leader at the MRC Cancer Unit and an Honorary Consultant in Gastroenterology and General Medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge – the trial proposes to involve some 1,500 volunteers by 2021, including healthy controls.

The non-invasive breath-biopsy device is designed to detect volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, present in a person’s exhaled breath.

Cells produce a range of VOCs during the body’s natural metabolic processes, each of which has a distinctive signature.

When cells become cancerous, VOC signatures are likely to undergo changes, which is exactly what the researchers are hoping to detect using the new test.

“The PAN trial is seeing if you can use a breath test device that detects volatile molecules from the breath to identify patients that might have an early cancer that they don’t know about,” Prof. Fitzgerald said.

Writing in a Cancer Research UK blog, Prof. Fitzgerald said that the pilot study would initially attempt to detect signatures for a range of cancers and identify anomalies by comparing them to healthy individuals.

“Intuitively, lung cancer seems the most obvious cancer to be detected in the breath, but because of the way metabolites are recycled in the body, many other volatile molecules from other areas of the body end up in the breath too,” she wrote.

Over the course of the clinical trial, Prof. Fitzgerald and Owlstone researchers will be looking for distinctive biomarkers in the exhaled molecules of, both, healthy participants as well as those with suspected oesophageal, stomach, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreatic, or prostate cancer.

Once the team is able to differentiate between healthy and cancerous VOC signatures, they will next try and identify differences between cancer types – unless all cancer signatures are one and the same.

“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,” Owlstone co-founder and CEO Billy Boyle said in a statement.

“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,” Boyle added.

Owlstone-developed breathalyzers, part of the company’s Breath Biopsy® platform, uses a “proven microchip chemical sensor technology (FAIMS) to detect biomarkers of disease” so that they can analyze VOCs present in exhaled breath, says the company website.

Not only does the platform have an application in cancer, but a “wide range of other medical conditions,” as well.

“Highly sensitive and selective, these tests allow for early diagnosis when treatments are more effective and more lives can be saved,” the website goes on to claim.

Prof. Fitzgerald herself has been suffering from a condition called Barrett’s esophagus for the last twenty years and undergoes an endoscopy once every two years to make sure things are under control.

Records show that one to five percent of all Barrett’s esophagus patients eventually end up with oesophageal cancer.

“I’m used to endoscopies by now, you just have to get on with them,” said the 54-year-old researcher.

“But they can be painful and invasive, so when I have one I choose to be sedated,” she said, adding that “the procedure means a whole day out and it takes quite a while to recover afterwards.”

With first-hand experience of the painfully invasive procedure, who else can better understand the benefits of an effective non-invasive diagnostic test than Prof. Fitzgerald, and that is the reason why she has volunteered to be among the first to participate in the clinical trial.

“Something like a breath test sounds so much better than what I have to have, so I was very happy to do the trial,” she said.

“After the breath test I felt fine, it was a very easy and there was no discomfort,” she continued.

“The more these conditions can be researched, and kinder detection tests developed, the better,” she added.

“This study will be the first step towards evaluating VOCs analysis as a test to improve early detection rates for cancer with future applicability to primary care,” says the study paper, published on

“Ultimately, such a research program could enable low cost and widespread targeted screening programs for cancer,” it adds.

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