Cancer Diagnosis with Breathalyzers Shows Promise

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Diagnosing breast cancer in patients who can’t afford a mammogram is a challenge, which is why researchers are looking into whether a simple breath test could be used instead.  

“Using a breathalyzer to diagnose certain cancers would offer patients immediate results,” said Charlene Bayer, a principal research scientist in the Georgia Tech Research Institute who is working with a team from the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University on this project. “Not only would this technology allow for easy diagnosis around the world, it could also make it easier to conduct testing for those with a genetic disposition for breast cancer and could make it easier to do follow-up testing following treatment.”

In Bayer’s most recent research, which was presented at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology Meeting on June 2, the breathalyzer was used to establish lung cancer in a sample of 25 women with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and 25 women without cancer. Bayer, who developed the breath sampler and analytical method used for both studies, has conducted air research for more than 30 years.  

The team found 75 unique breath volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) that differed between patients with NSCLC and subjects without the disease.

Very little research has been done when it comes to using breath tests to diagnose breast cancer. So after meeting Winship Researcher Sheryl Gabram, Bayer and Gabram decided to also compare the breath compounds of lung cancer patients with those of patients with breast cancer.

More than 300 BVOCs in breath samples of 20 healthy women over the age of 40 and 20 women recently diagnosed with stage II-IV breast cancer who had not received treatment were analyzed. The results showed that the breath analysis could determine that the sample came from a cancer patient or a healthy subject 78 percent of the time.

The breathalyzer works by trapping chemical compounds and examining them with an analyzer as a patient breathes into it. The researchers’ analysis methodology combines gas chromatography — a technique for separating complex compounds — with mass spectrometry, which identifies the chemical makeup of a substance. Specific patterns in the compounds are then found and used to determine whether or not cancer is present.

One of the primary challenges associated with developing a breathalyzer for this purpose is making the technology as simple as possible.

“It needs to be something that can be mass produced, like a syringe,” Bayer said. “The technology needs to be simple enough so that if someone drops the breathalyzer, it won’t have to be recalibrated.”

Future plans for this research include testing the technology on larger populations and analyzing whether the genetic signatures of the 75 differing BVOCs varies based on the stage of the disease. In addition to using the breath tests to diagnose lung and breast cancer, Bayer would eventually like to look into using the breathalyzers to diagnose other cancers.               

For more information about this research, contact Bayer.



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