Published: Sun, January 06, 2019
Medical | By

United Kingdom company develops breathalyzer device designed for early cancer detection

United Kingdom company develops breathalyzer device designed for early cancer detection

The test could replace current screening programmes within a decade.

The technology is the brainchild of Cambridge scientist Billy Boyle, who developed it after his wife died from colon cancer at the age of 36.

When cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism they produce a range of VOCs. These find their way into a patient's breath through the bloodstream, in a similar way to alcohol.

The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Center announced Tuesday the open enrollment for the first human trials for its Breath Biopsy Technology, which detects "volatile organic compounds" that can be an early sign of certain cancers.

The samples will then be sent to a laboratory in Cambridge to be analysed.

The idea behind the test is that cancer can cause recognisable alterations in the pattern of VOCs.

Directly funded by device manufacturer Owlstone Medical, the test will at first take samples from people suspected of having stomach or oesophageal cancers, before being expanded to look for signs of other types, such as pancreatic, prostate, kidney, bladder and liver cancers.

GPs' leaders said the research was exciting but they warned patients that breath tests to detect cancer were "unlikely to be commonplace at their GP practice anytime soon".

"Early detection research has faced a historic lack of funding and industry interest, and this work is a shining example of Cancer Research UK's commitment to reverse that trend and drive vital progress in shifting cancer diagnosis towards earlier stages".


'It's early stages but there are lots of promising signals that look like you will get a different signature from a cancer in your gut than you would from one in your lung, pancreas or anywhere else'.

The cancer breathalyser has the potential to save thousands of lives and save millions of pounds in healthcare costs, its developers claim.

This article has been republished from materials provided by Cancer Research UK.

There are more than 360,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year, according to Cancer Research UK.

"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", lead trial investigator Rebecca Fitzgerald said in a press release.

It's still very early stages but if the results of this trial are positive, it isn't just people at known risk of cancer who may benefit from the breath test. Fitzgerald foresees it as a screening tool that can be used to detect cancer in the earliest stages - before a patient notices symptoms even. It's the crucial next step.

How does the test work?

"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 they don't need", says Boyle.

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