A pilot study on a breath test to detect cancer has been launched in the UK.
Researchers funded by Cancer Research UK and the 'breath biopsy' technology firm Owlstone Medical are developing the potential diagnostic aid.
'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 their disease,' said Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead investigator on the project at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre. 'Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier.'
The study will run at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and will trial the breath test technology on 1500 people. It is expected to produce its first results in 2021. The trial will include healthy individuals and people who present with potential cancer symptoms or suffer from a condition that increases their risk of certain cancers.
The design of the study avoids looking at a cohort of cancer patients retrospectively. This way, it is hoped to truly test the ability of the breath biopsy to detect cancers that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Using the breath test, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, the researchers plan to gather data on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath. VOCs are produced by every cell of the body as a by-product of metabolism, which are expelled via the airways and can be detected in the breath.
The researchers hope to detect patterns or signatures of VOCs in the breath of people with cancer, allowing for possible early detection of the disease. In addition to detecting cancer, the study also aims to determine whether different types of cancer have different VOC signatures.
'Intuitively, lung cancer seems the most obvious cancer to be detected in the breath,' said Professor Fitzgerald. 'But because of the way metabolites are recycled in the body, many other volatile molecules from other areas of the body end up in the breath too.'
If the trial is successful, then this technology could be a useful new tool for cancer screening in future. The method would be cheaper, quicker and less invasive than most of the currently used techniques to detect cancer early, such as colonoscopies. This might be especially useful for patients with a condition that puts them at higher risks for certain cancers, such as oesophageal cancer in Barrett's oesophagus. With a breath test patients could avoid repetitive invasive procedures to keep any eye on their health.
'Eventually, I imagine it used as a screening tool where you test well people, or a triage test that can sit in the surgery to help GPs know who to refer,' said Professor Fitzgerald. 'I have no doubt that if the individuals come forward [to take part in the trial], then we'll have enough data to make the necessary conclusions that, if promising, can bring a cancer breath test one step closer to patients and their doctors.'