The warning whiff of cancer

The warning whiff of cancer

Cancer-detecting breath test starts Phase II clinical trial

A new Phase II clinical trial (NCT02612532) named LuCID, has been launched by the Cancer Research UK team in Cambridge in partnership with Owlstone Medical. It aims to find if signals of different cancer types can be picked up in patterns of breath molecules.

A breathalyser-type device detects cancer ‘signatures’ in patients’ breath by measuring volatile organic compounds (VOC) in exhaled breath.

As part of normal metabolic activity, the body’s cells produce a range of VOCs, of which some escape to the lungs and are exhaled. It is thought that different cancers can cause recognisable changes in the pattern of VOCs.

If the technology is proven to work, then it is hoped that the breathalyser could be used by GPs as an initial screening for cancer.

Cancer isn’t the only disease where breath tests can be used as a screening mechanism. It is thought that the chemical footprint left by Parkinson’s disease can also be measured in breath and it works by the same principal as the test for cancer. In a group of 29 people with early Parkinson’s and 19 people of a similar age who did not have the condition, analysing chemical signatures in the breath could detect Parkinson’s with roughly 80% accuracy.

A slightly more unconventional method of detecting the early warning signs of cancer is the use of cancer-detecting dogs. Back in 2015, the NHS approved the use of cancer-sniffing dogs in a trial run by the Milton Keynes charity Medical Detection Dogs. An initial study showed that specially trained dogs can detect prostate tumours in urine in over 90% of cases.

The hypothesis that dogs could detect cancer was first written about in 1989 in The Lancet. Two dermatologists described how a dog spent several minutes each day sniffing a coloured lesion that its owner had on her thigh, and even tried to bite it off at one point. Following these incidents, the owner had doctors inspect the lesion, where they discovered that it was a malignant melanoma. However, the issue with using sniffer dogs is that they test thousands of cases with little reward; and after the first dozen tests, they can easily become bored and less effective than when they just started testing.

Whatever method is utilised, spotting cancer at the first possible instance is an important target to aim for and one which could ultimately save many lives. The sooner tests such as these that give reliable results are used, the sooner cancer can be fought more effectively.

Sam Thomas, HealthCare21 Communications, Macclesfield