Device that can sniff out cancer in seconds

Around 60% of esophageal cancer detections in the UK come in late — this breathalyzer offers a simple solution

(Photo: Daily Mail)
An electronic “nose” that sniffs out chemicals in breath may help spot early signs of esophageal cancer, which can be linked to acid reflux.

The Breathalyzer-type device uses sensors to identify patterns of compounds found in breath that are unique to Barrett’s esophagus, a “pre” condition to the cancer.اضافة اعلان

Improving diagnosis of esophageal (or gullet) cancer could help save lives; currently around 60 percent of patients in the UK are diagnosed at a late stage, when it is harder to treat.

Having long-term, severe acid reflux is one of the main risk factors, as over time, the stomach acid causes cell changes in the gullet, known as Barrett’s esophagus. According to Cancer Research UK, up to 13 percent of people with Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal cancer.

Barrett’s is usually diagnosed with an endoscope, a long, thin flexible tube with a camera on the end — but this can be an uncomfortable procedure for patients, and expensive, making it unsuitable as a screening tool. The new breath test could provide a non-invasive alternative.

There are 3,000 volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) in the air we exhale; some are the result of inflammation, others are produced by metabolic processes in the body, such as the breaking down of glucose.

The VOCs are released into the blood and pass into the airway once the blood reaches the lungs, when they are then exhaled from the body. Different diseases have different patterns of VOCs and researchers have shown that the device can detect these patterns.

To carry out the test, the patient breathes into a tube attached to the device and sensors spot specific patterns of VOCs. Results are available within minutes.

In a study at Radboud University in The Netherlands, reported in the journal Gut last year, 400 people breathed into the device for five minutes; some had been diagnosed with Barrett’s, others acid reflux, or had a healthy esophagus. Results showed the VOC content was different in the three groups, and the device was able to detect Barrett’s nine times out of ten.

It could also accurately spot those without the condition.

A trial of the device is now under way at the university with nearly 500 patients, who will have the breath test and then an endoscopy to confirm the test’s accuracy.

Other research has shown the device can detect a wide range of conditions.

A study presented at the European Respiratory Society Congress in Madrid last year showed that it was 96 percent accurate at detecting lung cancer from VOCs.

The technology has also been used to identify people with colon cancer, tuberculosis, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, regional pain syndrome, stomach cancer and epilepsy.

Jaydip Ray, a professor of otology and neurotology from the University of Sheffield and clinical director for ear, nose and throat at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said, “VOCs offer a great promise as non-invasive biomarkers for (many cancers’) early detection, screening and surveillance.

“The non-invasive nature of the test is more patient friendly, uses fewer resources and might be easy to deploy in future.”

Aspirin may lower the risk of Barrett’s esophagus, a condition linked to gullet cancer. A study, published in the journal Clinics in Research in Hepatology and Gastroenterology, based on data from around 33,000 people, found non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which include aspirin, reduce the likelihood of developing the condition by 16 percent. One theory is aspirin blocks COX-2, an enzyme responsible for inflammation and pain.