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.
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
"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
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,
"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
"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
U.S. National Cancer Institutefor more on lung
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