Lung-cancer test could detect biomarkers in exhaled air

A procedure that detects protein biomarkers in exhaled air could lead to a device that diagnoses lung cancer in its early stages.

Developed by scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI, and the University Clinic of Leipzig, the new procedure could obviate the need for patients with a suspected tumour to undergo an X-ray examination or a bronchoscopy.

The latter method often involves the irritation of the lung or removal of tissue samples, which is uncomfortable for the patient undergoing the procedure.

‘Since 2006, working with the working groups of Prof Hubert Wirtz and Prof Ulrich Sack of the University Clinic, we first identified various biomarkers that are particularly well suited for the identification of lung-cancer cells,’ said Dr Jörg Lehmann, head of the Cell Engineering/GLP Unit at IZI. ‘The main difficulty lies in finding a reliable way to distinguish cancer from chronic inflammatory disease.’

The researchers have developed a laboratory method for reliably identifying biomarkers specific to lung cancer in special samples of exhaled air.

To accomplish this, the patient must breathe into a piece of equipment for roughly 20 minutes. The exhaled breath condensate is then evaporated.

Biomarkers are detected by special antibodies that recognise substances such as the protein VEGF, which is responsible for stimulating the growth of new blood vessels.

However, this laboratory method is still said to be too elaborate and expensive for normal everyday use.

‘Working in our joint project, the goal for the next two years is to produce a prototype that will then be validated in a clinical-diagnostic study and further developed to the production stage,’ said Lehmann.

In their testing platform, the scientists have applied two developments: in addition to the method enlisting protein biomarkers to identify cancer cells, they also made use of the antibody specially developed for this procedure.

This way, within just a few years, every physician investigating a suspicion of lung cancer can use the diagnostic platform in his or her practice to test whether there is a tumour and quickly initiate treatment.

Sponsored by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the scientists now want to work with SME partners to produce a first prototype that can then be further developed into a diagnostic tool.