February 19, 2019
2 min read

Breath test has 'potential to revolutionize' cancer detection, diagnosis

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Rebecca Fitzgerald, MD
Rebecca Fitzgerald

Researchers in the United Kingdom have launched a 2-year trial to evaluate whether a breath test can be used for early detection of multiple cancer types.

The PAN trial will test the Breath Biopsy (Owlstone Medical) technology by analyzing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) the device detects in the breath for signs of various cancers.

“We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease,” Rebecca Fitzgerald, MD, program leader of the MRC Cancer Unit at University of Cambridge, and an honorary consultant in gastroenterology and general medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, U.K., said in a press release. “Through this clinical trial, we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier. It is the crucial next step in developing this technology.”

HemOnc Today spoke with Fitzgerald about the rationale for a breath test to detect cancer, how this trial will be conducted, the timeline for results and potential implications if this approach is proven effective.

Question: What is the rationale for using a breath test to detect cancer?

Answer: Early diagnosis saves lives. Current research is investigating how blood tests, urine tests and breath tests can assist in the early detection and diagnosis of cancer. A universal breath test has the potential to detect cancer earlier. When cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism, they produce a range of VOCs. If their metabolism becomes altered, such as in cancer and various other conditions, cells can release a different pattern of VOCs. The trial will see if the Breath Biopsy technology can be used to detect VOCs from the breath to identify patients who might have an early cancer that they did not know about.

Q: How is this approach used for cancer detection now?

A: This is not yet offered to patients, but the technology is being tested in clinical trials. The technology has been proven effective at detecting VOCs in the breath. Lung cancer breath studies using the technology are ongoing..

Q: How will this trial be conducted?

A: Researchers will collect breath samples from 1,500 people, including healthy people as controls, to analyze VOCs in their breath and see if signals of different cancer types can be detected. The clinical trial will start with patients with suspected esophageal and stomach cancers and then expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers. A range of cancers will be looked at and compared with the signal in healthy individuals. If the sophisticated technology can distinguish cancer signatures from healthy signatures, the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there is one cancer signature.


Q: What is the timeline for results?

A: The trial aims to have collected and analyzed the breath of 1,500 people by 2021.

Q: What are the potential implications if this approach is proven effective?

A: Technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionize the way we detect and diagnose cancer. Early detection research has faced a historic lack of funding and industry interest, and this work is an example of Cancer Research UK’s commitment to reverse that trend and drive vital progress in shifting diagnosis of cancer to an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. – by Jennifer Southall

For more information:

Rebecca Fitzgerald, MD, can be reached at MRC Cancer Unit, University of Cambridge, Hutchison/MRC Research Center, Box 197, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge CB2 0XZ, United Kingdom; email: rcf29@mrc-cu.cam.ac.uk.

Disclosure: Fitzgerald reports no relevant financial disclosures.