Cancer is a global medical problem. Research conducted in 2012 indicated just during that year approximately 8.2 million patients around the globe passed away due to some form of cancer.
In the United States, according to information from the National Cancer Institute, approximately 1,735,350 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2018. However, there is some good news regarding cancer research. In 2016, approximately 15.5 million cancer survivors resided in the United States. According to the National Cancer Institute, by 2026, this number is expected to rise to 20.3 million.
The projected increasing cancer survival rates are due to ongoing research into new cancer treatment and detection methods. One of the most recent developments is a new clinical trial utilizing a breath test for the detection of multiple forms of cancer. Known as the Breath Biopsy, this non-invasive test, if successful, can revolutionize cancer diagnosis. Below is more information about why such a test is necessary and how it works.
Early cancer detection is an essential part of successful treatment. When cancer is allowed to spread, or metastasize, in your body, the chances of treating it successfully become lower. In the U.K., which is where the clinical trial for the new breath test to detect cancer is taking place, approximately 50 percent of all cancer cases are diagnosed in late stages of development. In the United States, several types of cancer are detected early using routine, often annual, tests. Among them are:
The current screening methods for such cancers are quite invasive. You may choose to postpone testing for this reason, leading to late cancer detection and a poor prognosis. There is a constant race by researchers to develop more efficient and more comfortable methods of cancer screening. Many medical experts believe if you are presented with a more convenient or comfortable testing method, you are more likely to seek early cancer screening. The discovery of potentially unique “breath signatures” provides a gateway to the development of non-invasive testing methods, such as the one currently under clinical trial in the U.K.
For many years, scientists were aware of a relationship between breath odor and health. For example, your dentist may use your breath to identify problems relating to oral hygiene and mouth-related illnesses, such as:
Scientists are now focusing more on the relationship between the rest of your body and your breath. This relationship can provide the key needed to diagnose many diseases and disorders in their early stages. A common example of how breath analysis has revolutionized medical treatment is in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes.
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If you are diabetic and your diabetes is not controlled, your breath takes on a unique odor. It is often referred to as “fruity” or smelling like rotting apples. Similarly, if you have liver disease or kidney failure, your breath takes on unique odors reflecting those ailments. In the case of liver failure, the odor is similar to rotten eggs. Kidney failure is often indicated by the odor of ammonia.
You may be wondering where such odors come from. When breathing in, you inhale oxygen. When breathing out, you exhale carbon dioxide. You also exhale many different compounds that enter your bloodstream from your body. The compounds combine and produce odors like those described above. The specific odors produced indicate the possible ailments you may have. By analyzing these odors and the compounds responsible for producing them, doctors and scientists can potentially identify the presence of such ailments in your body, including cancer.
In the case of cancer, scientists believe certain cancers produce particular patterns of molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). As the cells in your body perform normal actions, VOCs are produced as byproducts. The scientists in charge of the clinical trial of the new breath test to detect cancer believe it is possible to detect pattern changes in the VOCs. These scientists believe pattern changes occur when cancer is present in cells because normal cellular functions are altered.
Scientists believe you have a specific VOC pattern when you are healthy, but the pattern is altered when cancer or other disruptions occur at the cellular level. They believe they can use breath analysis to identify the specific VOCs present and detect an altered VOC pattern. Such an altered pattern may be indicative of illnesses. Scientists also hope they can isolate the specific VOC signatures of various types of cancer through the use of the new cancer breath test.
The concept of testing your breath is not new. A common example is a breathalyzer test to detect alcohol consumption, but similar tests are also given to detect certain illnesses. However, it can be challenging to perform such tests. One of the biggest hurdles has previously been the need for immediate analysis. Previously, storing your breath for later analysis was not possible, nor was transporting it. However, the new cancer breath test utilizes a sponge-like breath biopsy cartridge. The device can hold your collected breath until a lab technician has time to analyze its components. Using the collection cartridge, it is possible to have your breath collected anywhere and transported to a lab later for analysis as well. This development adds an additional level of convenience to the already non-invasive test.
The new breath test to detect cancer is not unique in its basic design or concept, but it is unique in its level of convenience. There are several preexisting breath tests for specific forms of cancer, including lung and colon cancer. Screening for each cancer type requires a separate breath test. The new breath test to detect cancer, currently undergoing a clinical trial in the U.K., aims to eliminate the need for multiple tests. It can potentially allow scientists and doctors to successfully identify multiple types of cancer by analyzing the VOC pattern in a single breath sample. If successful, the test will make screenings for multiple types of cancer and some other illnesses quick and convenient. It will also reduce the cost of cancer diagnostic tests drastically.
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