A new study carried out by the University of Colorado Cancer Centre has shown that testing volatile organic compounds (VOC) in exhaled breath can reveal both the presence and stage of lung cancer.
The test involves blowing up a balloon, which is then attached to an extremely sensitive gold nanoparticle sensor. The particles in the sensor trap and then help to analyse volatile organic compounds in the exhaled breath. (A USB device has recently been developed, which can be plugged into a computer for rapid analysis).
Dr Fred R. Hirsch, investigator at the CU Cancer Centre and Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine said: "This could totally revolutionize lung cancer screening and diagnosis. The perspective here is the development of a non-traumatic, easy, cheap approach to early detection and differentiation of lung cancer."
The metabolism of lung cancer patients is different than the metabolism of healthy people, and it is these differences in metabolism that can define the signatures of healthy breath or lung cancer.
The developing device represents collaboration between the University of Colorado Cancer Centre and researchers from the Nobel-Prize-winning institution Technion University in Haifa, Israel and the potential uses for the device go beyond diagnosis.
"In addition to using levels of volatile organic compounds to diagnose lung cancer, we could eventually measure the change in patients' levels of VOCs across time with the intent of, for example, monitoring how well a patient responds to specific treatments," Dr Hirsch says.
A breath now and a breath after treatment could define whether a patient should stay with a drug regimen or explore other options. In fact, a study with this goal was recently initiated at the University of Colorado Cancer Centre.
Additionally, Dr Hirsch points out that next generations of the device could potentially help doctors quickly, simply, and inexpensively define patients' lung cancer subtypes, allowing doctors to pair molecularly targeted therapies with subtypes early in the treatment process.
"If it works, you can imagine standing in the grocery store and having high risk people blow into a balloon or a USB device, and the profile of the organic compounds in their breath would tell you if they are at risk for developing or having lung cancer, which then could lead to further, focused tests," Dr Hirsch says.
The study was presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO).