Breath-test for lung cancer research tips a bypass for biopsy

A simple breath test could one day diagnose early-stage lung cancer, researchers have suggested, avoiding painful, expensive, and complex biopsies in the process. The system, developed by Dr Michael Bousamra and a team at the University of Louisville, uses a custom-designed silicon microprocessor and a mass spectrometer to identify cancer-specific carbonyl compounds, the presence or absence of which in the tested patient's breath were found to be strongly linked to cancerous or benign lung masses.

For instance, it was discovered that those with higher signs of three or four cancer-specific carbonyl compounds could predict lung cancer in around 95-percent of patients found to have a pulmonary nodule or mass. Those with such a nodule or mass, but found not to have the specific "volatile organic compounds" in their breath, predicted it to be benign in 80-percent of patients.

While the masses in both cases might show up on an X-ray, and result in the patient being directed to a biopsy to investigate the potential for them being cancerous versus benign, Bousamra's system would allow for differentiation before that step. "The novelty of this approach includes the simplicity of sample collection and ease for the patient" the doctor suggested.

The results of the study were presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, with the findings from the custom sensor compared to pathologic and clinical results.

The silicone microprocessor itself was coated with an amino-oxy compound, which binds to carbonyl compounds in exhaled breath. Levels of the compounds rose in patients with a malignant nodule, but returned to the usual low levels once it had been completely removed.