Scientists have shown that minimal genetic changes can be detected in vapour containing cells engineered to replicate early stage lung cancer. The findings could potentially be used to develop a breath test for lung cancer that is able to distinguish between different gene mutations.
Certain compounds detectable in the breath are known to be potential biomarkers for cancer, but it was not known is whether they reflected specific mutations. To study this, researchers from the University of Liverpool and the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology engineered bronchial airway cells to replicate early lung cancer, before analysing the vapour that had collected in the container used to grow them.
The researchers found that it was possible to distinguish between two different types of gene mutation that were present in the cells.
'These findings tell us that it's theoretically possible to develop a test that could diagnose early lung cancer in the breath of patients', said Dr Mike Davies at the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Research Programme, who led the research.
The test could be used in early diagnostics to identify high-risk patients, explained the researchers. 'It could also be used to help match patients to the right treatment by providing doctors with a snapshot of the genetic makeup of their individual tumour', Dr Davies added.
Dr Davies acknowledged that further research is needed before the study's findings could start to be put into practice, saying, 'first we need to do further tests with the breath of real patients to see whether this method can accurately diagnose genetic changes in growing lung tumours'.
Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: 'These early results raise the prospect of a cheap, effective test to diagnose lung cancer. We are still a way off from the large scale trials, however, that is necessary before this technique could be used widely'.
Lung cancer leads to more deaths than any other cancer, causing 35,000 deaths in the UK in 2012. Barrie explained that when diagnosed at the earliest stage around 70 percent of patients will survive for a year or more, compared to just 14 percent who are diagnosed at its most advanced stage.
Meanwhile, Italian researchers have suggested that measuring the temperature of the breath could help diagnose lung cancer. Higher breath temperature is associated with lung cancer, they explain, suggesting the presence of inflammation in the airways.