International team develops breath test for lung cancer

An international team has developed a breathalyser test for lung cancer that detects the scent profile of tumours.  

The breathalyser test, embedded with a so-called NaNose nanotech chip to detect cancer tumours, was developed by Prof Nir Peled of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Prof Hossam Haick of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and Prof Fred Hirsch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.

Their study, presented at a recent American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago, was conducted on 358 patients who were either diagnosed with or at risk for lung cancer.

‘Lung cancer is a devastating disease, responsible for almost 2,000 deaths in Israel annually – a third of all cancer-related deaths,’ Dr Peled said in a statement. ‘Lung cancer diagnoses require invasive procedures such as bronchoscopies, computer-guided biopsies, or surgery. Our new device combines several novel technologies with a new concept – using exhaled breath as a medium of diagnosing cancer. Our NaNose was able to detect lung cancer with 90 per cent accuracy even when the lung nodule was tiny and hard to sample. It was even able to discriminate between subtypes of cancer, which was unexpected.’

Lung cancer tumours produce chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which evaporate into the air and produce a discernible scent profile.

Prof Haick harnessed nanotechnology to develop the highly sensitive NaNose chip, which detects the unique signature of VOCs in exhaled breath. In four out of five cases, the device differentiated between benign and malignant lung lesions and even different cancer subtypes.

‘Cancer cells not only have a different and unique smell or signature, you can even discriminate between subtypes and advancement of the disease,’ said Dr Peled. ‘The bigger the tumour, the more robust the signature.’

The device and subsequent analysis sorted healthy people from people with early-stage lung cancer 85 per cent of the time, and healthy people from those with advanced lung cancer 82 per cent of the time. The test also accurately distinguished between early and advanced lung cancer 79 per cent of the time.

‘The device could prove valuable in helping determine patients who need more intensive screening for lung cancer,’ said Dr Peled. ‘We’re hoping to have a device that would be able to give you a go/no-go result – something’s wrong, go get an X-ray.’

Boston-based Alpha Szenszor has licensed the technology and hopes to introduce it to the market within the next few years. Meanwhile, a new, smaller version of the device has since been developed that can plug into a computer’s USB port.

The study was supported by the European Union LCAOS grant, an EU-funded collaborative whose aim is to enable the earliest possible detection of lung cancer, and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC).

Participants in the study enrolled at UC Denver, Tel Aviv University, Liverpool University, and a Jacksonville, Florida, radiation centre. Other researchers included Prof Paul Bunn of UC Denver; Prof Douglas Johnson, Dr Stuart Milestone, and Dr John Wells in Jacksonville; Prof John Field of Liverpool University; and Dr Maya Ilouze and Tali Feinberg of TAU.