United Kingdom company develops breathalyzer device designed for early cancer detection

Leslie Hanson
January 5, 2019

"Owlstone Medical's Breath Biopsy technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test".

The test is created to pick up early signs of the disease which enter the breath and become airborne - slashing the need for biopsies.

It's still very early stages but if the results of this trial are positive, it isn't just people at known risk of cancer who may benefit from the breath test. Fitzgerald foresees it as a screening tool that can be used to detect cancer in the earliest stages - before a patient notices symptoms even.

Patients will be advised to breath into the test for 10 minutes in order for the team to collect a sample, which will be then analysed.

Cells in the body produce a range of VOCs as part of their normal metabolic processes.

Past research has shown that a human's breath contains carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, as well as more than 100 chemical compounds, some of which form cancerous patterns.

Patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers will be the first to undergo the trial and then it will expand to include those with prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.


"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 Global Positioning System know who to refer", she added.

A breathalyser test that could revolutionise cancer diagnosis is being trialled in the UK. The idea is to compare the breath of those who are later diagnosed with cancer to those that are not to see if there are special signatures that offer any tell-tale clues.

Billy Boyle, co-founder and chief executive of British company Owlstone Medical, which is behind the device, says that if successful, the device will present a non-invasive mode of testing for cancer.

Dr David Crosby, from Cancer Research UK, said: 'It sounds futuristic but it's very much a real thing and the potential is enormous. "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".

"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", according to the lead investigator Rebecca Fitzgerald, a professor at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre. A non-invasive test using this technology could help to further differentiate those likely to develop esophageal cancer from those less likely to develop the disease.

"I think the more research done to monitor conditions like mine and the kinder the detection tests developed, the better", she said. This, the researchers believe, can be used as a smoking gun to alert doctors to the presence of cancer. Note: material may have been edited for length and content.

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