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Breath Test May Spot Lung Cancer

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

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, June 2, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People may soon be able to learn whether or not they have lung cancer -- and how bad their cancer is -- by breathing into a tube.

Researchers have developed a breathalyzer that can detect lung cancer and assess whether it is early or advanced, according to findings presented this weekend at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago.

The device accurately detected lung cancer in four out of five cases, researchers reported.

"Cancer cells not only have a different and unique smell or signature, you can even discriminate between subtypes and determine disease burden," said study author Dr. Nir Peled, an oncologist with the Davidoff Cancer Center in Israel. "The more tumor you have, the more robust signature you produce."

A new, smaller version of the device has since been developed that can plug into a computer's USB port, Peled said.

"This could totally revolutionize lung cancer screening and diagnosis" by providing a "nontraumatic, easy, cheap approach to early detection and differentiation of lung cancer," said study co-author Dr. Fred Hirsch, an investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.

Lung cancer is the United States' top cancer killer, in large part because symptoms don't appear until the disease has advanced to the point where it is incurable.

In 2010, 158,248 people in the United States died from lung cancer, including 87,698 men and 70,550 women, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The potential of a breath test for lung cancer is "certainly exciting," said Dr. Jyoti Patel, an ASCO spokeswoman and an oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University in Chicago. "We know that screening people for lung cancer can substantially impact survival. If we can do it cheaply, this would be a go-to test."

Lung cancer tumors produce chemicals called volatile organic compounds, which easily evaporate into the air and produce a discernable scent profile.

Researchers for years have been investigating ways to detect lung cancer from a person's breath. For example, a 2011 study reported that dogs had been trained to reliably sniff out lung cancer in human breath.

Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to create devices that can detect these particles down to one part per trillion, vastly improving the ability to create detailed cancer scent signatures, Peled said.

The new study involved 358 people located in the United States and Israel. Of those, 213 had lung cancer and of those, 143 had advanced-stage cancer. Another 145 did not have lung cancer.

Doctors had the patients blow into a balloon, which was then attached to a very sensitive gold nanoparticle sensor. Technion Institute, a laboratory in Haifa, Israel, then analyzed the particles in the sensor trap for volatile organic compounds that are evidence of lung cancer.

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