Over the years we got accustomed to the ease of use and speed of Breathalyzer, a small handheld device that can reliably estimate the amount of blood alcohol content from a breath sample. But advances in this type of technology will potentially soon enable us to utilize the same approach to detect cancers. Trials of such device were recently performed at the University of Southern California. The test consisted of measuring the effectiveness of two separate things – a Breathscanner apparatus and the accompanying BreathLink app that perform a wide variety of tests of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were detected in user’s breath. The procedure uses gas chromatography to separate alveolar breath VOC samples, enabling the device to detect each specific target using the procedures known as surface acoustic wave detection (GC-SAW) or flame ionization (GC-FID). It is very sensitive and can detect particles in the picomolar stage.
According to the leader of this project, Dr. Michael Phillips of Menssana Research,
“It’s just like a breathalyzer for alcohol, only it’s a billion times more sensitive.”
During this test, Breathlink has already managed to successfully identify patients with active pulmonary tuberculosis, but researchers plan for several more trials. The currently active study is focused on detection of heart transplant rejection, breath and lung cancers via a breath sample. If it manages to perform well in these tasks, the researchers will ask for quick approval by the FDA.
Another breath test analyzer that was developed at the Imperial College in London is also undergoing active trials. Its technology based on ion flow tube mass spectrometry has already managed to successfully identify esophageal and stomach cancers in 300 patients with the very high accuracy of 85 percent. The leader of this research project Dr. Sheraz Markar has said the following:
“At present the only way to diagnose esophageal cancer or stomach cancer is with endoscopy. This method is expensive, invasive and has some risk of complications. A breath test could be used as a non-invasive, first-line test to reduce the number of unnecessary endoscopies. In the longer term this could also mean earlier diagnosis and treatment and better survival.”
The development of breath analyzing equipment for early detection of cancer and other serious conditions could provide great benefit to patients and doctors from all around the world. If it could be made easily portable, this technology could become commonly used anywhere where the internet connection is available (the bulk of the data processing is not done on the device, but on a distant server).
As of now, the Breathalizer will remain focused on detecting the chemical imbalance of breaths of lung or breast cancer patients, but researchers hope that other forms of cancers would eventually also be detectable.
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