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Breath Test May Spot Lung Cancer

Researchers report test could also differentiate early and late stages of the disease

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The device and subsequent analysis accurately sorted healthy people from people with early-stage lung cancer 85 percent of the time, and healthy people from those with advanced lung cancer 82 percent of the time, researchers said.

The test also accurately distinguished between early and advanced lung cancer 79 percent of the time.

The device could prove valuable in helping determine patients who need more intensive screening for lung cancer, Patel and Peled said.

"We're hoping to have a device that would be able to give you a go/no go result -- hey buddy, something's wrong, go get an X-ray," Peled said.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that older smokers at high risk for lung cancer receive annual low-dose CT scans, but an advisory panel for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has recommended against Medicare picking up the tab for those tests.

The estimated cost to Medicare for CT lung cancer screening and subsequent treatment is $9.3 billion over five years, according to another study presented at ASCO over the weekend.

Critics also point out that the CT scans produce a large number of false positives, usually by detecting noncancerous lung nodules.

A lung cancer breathalyzer could provide a low-cost first step to weed out people who definitely don't have lung cancer, potentially lowering the overall cost of lung cancer screening, Patel said.

"We have almost 100 million smokers in the United States," she said. "If we can do a one-off screening for lung cancer, that would be incredibly impactful."

A U.S. company, Boston-based Alpha Szenszor, has licensed the technology and is working to bring it to market within the next few years, Peled said.

The research team also has moved forward, and now is working on tests that can monitor tumor shrinkage to determine whether lung cancer treatments are working, he said.

"If you have a lung cancer patient with a median survival of one year, if you wait two or three months to see what their response to therapy is, you're losing a lot of time," Peled said.

However, Patel noted that the research presented at ASCO needs to be verified. Experts caution that studies presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"They have the technology. We need to validate their findings," she said.

Peled agreed. "Low-dose CT has been shown to reduce lung cancer deaths by 20 percent," he said. "No one has shown the exhaled breath analysis can do that. No one should forget what has already been proven."

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