Cancer researchers in Great Britain are testing a new device that can detect cancer with a simple breath test. While the tests are not currently targeting patients at risk for mesothelioma, researchers say the test could easily be adapted to include the disease.
The breath biopsy machine, designed by researchers with Owlstone Medical and undergoing clinical trials at the Cancer Research United Kingdom Cambridge Institute, can screen for signature molecules that can detect a variety of cancers.
Mesothelioma, a cancer found in the lining of lungs and other organs, has been linked to long-term exposure to asbestos. Initial symptoms are similar to other pulmonary illnesses:
- Chest and abdominal pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Abdominal bloating
A doctor who suspects mesothelioma will conduct a biopsy – currently the only way to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. This is followed by imaging tests such as an MRI or CT scan.
Mesothelioma is rare – only about 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, a number that has held steady since the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, most cases are not detected until they are advanced, offering doctors a limited arsenal for treatment.
Potential for early detection
Because diagnosis involves invasive surgery and often occurs in the disease’s later stages, the possibility of an easy test that provides earlier detection has many in the field hopeful.
Researchers say the breath test screens for volatile organic compounds that become distinctive in the presence of some cancers. The ongoing research in Great Britain is now testing 1,500 healthy people and those who have or are suspected to have various cancers including esophageal, stomach, prostate, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer. Because mesothelioma is relatively rare, testing for mesothelioma is not yet on the list.
Experts say the earlier detection promised by the breath biopsy machine can increase the chances of survival and revolutionize the way cancer is detected and diagnosed.