Cancer breath test detects 80 percent of cases in early trial
The pursuit of early-stage cancer screening methods that are both low-cost and non-invasive is a common goal among medical researchers, and a team in Australia is claiming a significant advance in this area. The team has developed a breath test that can detect exhaled breath profiles associated with head and neck cancers, with the tool demonstrating a high degree of accuracy in early trials.
Over the past few years we've looked at a number of promising breath tests for cancer. Many of these technologies work by analyzing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath, which can appear as unique patterns when our body’s metabolism is disrupted by the disease.
Efforts to detect and classify these unique breath-based biomarkers are gaining some serious momentum of late, with promising results from studies involving breath tests for esophageal and stomach cancers, and we've seen breath tests for lung cancer and even more generalized approaches move into clinical trials.
The authors of the new study, from Australia’s Flinders University, are focusing their attention on head and neck cancers. which account for six percent of all cancers and kill around 300,000 people around the world each year. Treatments are effective if the disease is caught early, but often it is not, with the late-stage forms of the disease bringing a poor prognosis.
“Our work has identified a unique profile of VOCs in an Australian patient cohort that can differentiate head and neck cancer patients from non-cancer patients,” lead author Dr. Roger Yazbek explains to New Atlas.
That cohort was made up of 181 patients with suspected early-stage head and neck cancer, who had not yet received treatment. A selected ion flow-tube mass spectrometer was used to analyze their breath for VOCs, with the team able to determine a specific pattern associated with head and neck cancer.
In testing out the breath test, the researchers found it accurately detected cancer 80 percent of the time, and accurately detected benign cases 86 percent of the time. These results were confirmed via tissue biopsy analysis and then in a separate group of patients.
“A key advantage of our work is that we used an independent group to confirm the accuracy of our test,” says Yazbek. “Even though the numbers of patients in this study was relatively low, the fact that the accuracy of the test was preserved in this independent group of patients gives us greater confidence in the usability of the test in clinical application.”
From here, the researchers hope to build on these promising results with larger trials involving more diverse patient groups, with different ethnicities, genders, and cancer stages. If it proves successful across a larger cohort, then it could find its way into clinical use.
“Our grand vision is for a handheld device that could be used at point-of-care to rapidly provide information to physicians about whether or not a person has a suspected head and neck cancer,” Yazbek tells us.
The research was published in the British Journal of Cancer.