The developers of a promising new lung cancer detection instrument have announced they are now moving their device into clinical trials. By relying on breath tests as a means of diagnosing the disease, it is hoped that the device could a non-invasive method for earlier detection and ultimately boost lung cancer survival rates.

The potential of breath testing as a mechanism for picking up early signs of lung cancer has been explored by various researchers and companies around the world. These efforts have resulted in a device that creates a reaction between embedded gold nanoparticles and certain molecules in the breath, and even solutions inspired by a dog's nose.

But the team behind the Gas Chromatography – Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (GC-FAIMS) sensor are hopeful of establishing a quicker and cheaper method of diagnosis. The instrument relies on the detection of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath, compounds that are produced by the body and can serve as a biomarker for lung cancer if their presence is heightened. It detects this by separating and identifying different chemical ions depending on how they react when subjected to an electric field.

"This project will seek to identify and evaluate biomarkers in order to improve the accuracy and reliability of breath diagnostic methods," says Dr Salman Siddiqui from the University of Leicester, who will lead the clinical study.

If the trials prove successful, they could bring the presence of such tools in GP clinics and hospitals one step close to reality. The company behind the device, Owlstone Nanotech, says that through its efforts the rate of early lung cancer detection could be boosted from the current figure of 14.5 percent to 25 percent by 2020. It estimates that this would equate to around 10,000 lives saved and a £250 million (US$386 million) saving in medical costs.

"If you could change only one thing in the fight against cancer, it would be to detect the disease earlier where existing treatments are already proven to save lives," says Owlstone co-founder, Billy Boyle. "FAIMS technology has the potential to bring a quick and easy-to-use breath test to a GP’s office. Our team will not rest until we help stop the daily devastation that cancer brings to patients and their families."

The trials are slated to begin later this year in a rapid access lung cancer clinic at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, England.