Cambridge Scientists Inch Closer to Breath Biopsy Tool

Cancer continues to be one of the most pervasive diseases we can suffer as human beings, and that is largely because it is not always easy to detect. After all, the body can be in a “pre-cancerous” state for many years without any indication at all; and it is not until testing specifically for cancer that we can even begin to form a diagnosis. And even then, cancer can choose just about any organ in the body to take up growth, and in many cases by the time we detect it is often too late to do anything to prevent it and all we are left with is a hope that treatment will succeed.

The days of scarce—and too-late—cancer diagnoses, though, may soon be a thing of the past.  Cancer Research UK has been running tests on a new—and very simple—breath test that might detect cancer molecules in the mouth to aid in disease identification in just a matter of seconds.  According to the researchers, all cells in the body produce something called volatile organic compounds as a result of normal, everyday operation. These molecules are odorous, making them easy to detect (particularly in the mouth), and if their metabolism changes—as in the case of cancerous cells—their patterns change. And that makes it easier to detect the presence of cancer. 

Essentially a breath biopsy, the test has been developed by the Cambridge-based biotechnology firm, Owlstone Medical. Of course, it is the first of its kind to detect multiple types of cancer. More importantly it is a major stepping stone towards the development of a universal breath test that any GP could quickly—and probably cheaply—administer. 

The viability of a cancer-detecting breath test is still in its early stages.   As such, Cancer Research UK has taken breath samples from 1,500 people to determine if such a thing could become a reasonable diagnosis method. If this trial is successful, of course, it would mean that we would be able to spot cancer quickly—and before it metastasizes and spreads—increasing survival rates. 

According to Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre lead trail investigator, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, “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 the disease.”

She concludes, “Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier—it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology.”