Can a breathing mask detect cancer? Study underway

Jan 14, 2019

Many forms of cancer are caught only in their late stages, often leaving a doctor to tell that patient there probably is little hope. They remain hidden deep within the body.

That is what happened to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her lung cancer was found when she was x-rayed for broken ribs.

British researchers are now testing use of a breathing mask that can potentially show cancer earlier.

Much of the research into cancer these days is the search for tests that can spot the disease in its earliest stages when most treatable . Many tests are being researched.

Can a breathing mask predict cancer earlier?
Credit Owlstone Medical

A team based around Cambridge University and private Owlstone Medical is recruiting 1,500 participants, both  cancer patients and healthy individuals, to breathe into a mask. The research team expects to spend two years testing and measuring the air those people exhale.

The goal is to find the "volatile organic compounds" breathed out by an individual, which potentially can show there is a cancer. Owlstone calls it "breath biopsy."

"You measure the volatile organic compounds, you see differences and then you say, 'Oh. Okay. Maybe these differences suggest that people with these differences have cancer and people without these differences don't have cancer,'" said Roswell Park Thoracic Department Chair and Surgeon Sai Yendamuri. "Then, you take it to a larger set of patients and then you eventually try to validate the test that you have created."

Credit Owlstone Medical

Yendamuri said he is watching the research carefully, noting it is difficult to find a cancer cell among millions of cells.

"Unless you have a test that is that sensitive, it won't work and, therefore, even the test that they have for detecting cancer cells in a person's blood, they have promise and they are getting better with each iteration, but they're not there yet," said Yendmuri. "They're not where I can tell a cancer patient today, 'Well, you can get a blood test and I can tell you if you have cancer or not.'"

Yendamuri said it is going to be at least two years until the results show up in a peer-reviewed medical journal and he can look at every word and every chart to see the results. The surgeon deals with some of the most intractable cancers, like lung cancer and mesothelioma, usually found very late in their growth.

"The people who do research in early detection of lung cancer, me being one of them, yes, we are excited about this. We talk about it," Yendmuri said, "but we wait to hear actual data and actual scientific literature before we are convinced that this works."