A simple breath test gives hope for earlier diagnosis that could save lives.
Scientists have successfully trialled a simple breath test to detect stomach cancer, using a new type of sensor made of nanomaterials.
The first trial of the device is small, involving 130 patients with a range of different stomach complaints, but it proved to be more than 90% accurate in differentiating between cancer and other diseases. It was also over 90% accurate in detecting which were early-stage cancers and which were advanced.
It has been known for some time that cancers can give off odours that may not be detectable to the human nose. A study published by German researchers in 2010 described how dogs had been trained to sniff out lung cancers – although they accepted it was possible the dogs were picking up the smell of drugs used to treat patients rather than the disease.
The stomach cancer breath test takes the concept into more measurable and probably useful territory. Stomach cancer can be detected by an endoscopic examination, which involves inserting a flexible tube through the nose and into the digestive system, but this is not pleasant. A breath test could be routinely used by a GP to rule out cancer.
The scientists, from Israel and China, describe in the British Journal of Cancer how their sensors detected the chemical profile of the cancer with a high degree of accuracy in the air that the patients exhaled.
Professor Hossam Haick, lead researcher from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, said: “The promising findings from this early study suggest that using a breath test to diagnose stomach cancers, as well as more benign complaints, could be a future alternative to endoscopies – which can be costly and time-consuming, as well as unpleasant to the patient.
“Nevertheless, these results are at an early stage and support the concept of a breath test to detect stomach cancers but further validations are needed. Indeed, we’re already building on the success of this study with a larger-scale clinical trial.
“Around 7,000 people develop stomach cancer in the UK each year and most of these are in their advanced stages when they are diagnosed. But if found to be accurate enough, the nanomaterial breath test presents a new possibility for screening a population for stomach cancer, which would hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis of the disease.”
Kate Law, the director of clinical research at Cancer Research UK, said the test could lead to earlier detection of stomach cancer, which could save lives. “The results of this latest study are promising – although large-scale trials will now be needed to confirm these findings,” she said.
“Only one in five people are able to have surgery as part of their treatment as most stomach cancers are diagnosed at stages that are too advanced for surgery. Any test that could help diagnose stomach cancers earlier would make a difference to patients’ long-term survival.”