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Study Says Breath Analysis Can Help in Diagnosing Cancer

Lung cancer claims an estimated one and a half million lives each year. But a research team at the Cleveland Clinic and University of Illinois is working to develop a new test that could make diagnosis and treatment faster and easier.

If only diagnosing lung cancer were as easy as exhaling. It soon may be. This machine analyzes a person's breath and identifies the exact composition of the organic compounds in it. “We all have chemicals in our breath and we think that the chemicals in breath of people with cancer are slightly different than those without cancer," said Dr. Peter Mazzone of the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Peter Mazzone led the study using breath analysis as a tool to diagnose lung cancer. He and his team of researchers tested the breath of 229 patients from Cleveland Clinic. Ninety-two of them had confirmed lung cancer and the others had high risk of developing it, with undefined growths in their lungs.

“We found that we could be in the 80-85% accuracy range at detecting lung cancer from the breath signature. We were a little more accurate if we looked for a very specific type of lung cancer rather than lung cancer in general. We found that we were able to characterize someone’s lung cancer that was in an advanced stage versus an early stage," he said.

Dr. Mazzone says the breath test also reveals how cancer is behaving. For example, the study shows aggressive cancers have a different breath bio-signature than cancers which are not so fast-moving.

But the test will have to be refined before it can be widely adopted.

“This was relatively a crude instrument with lots of room for improvement so our hope is that the next generation of this sensor system can increase that accuracy beyond the 80- 85 percent range to a point where it can be clinically useful," said Dr. Mazzone.

At that point, the test could be used during regular health check-ups for early detection. It would be easier to administer, less invasive and less expensive than the currently available tests, biopsies and scans.

Experts also hope that the breath test, when supplemented by a CAT scan, could help doctors quickly distinguish between benign and malignant tumors, so treatment could begin sooner.