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Early detection of cancer represents a big clinical challenge. New breath tests may help in facilitating this task. Breath test for stomach cancer was recently developed. New tests for lung and breast cancer are now under development.

Cancer can be treated rather successfully these days. Surgical techniques are constantly improving, and the tumors that were problematic to remove in not so distant past are operable now.  Existing drugs, even though they are far from perfect, can successfully hunt down the remaining cancer cells in the body and ensure that the disease does not come back, at least for a long time.

All above is correct on the assumption that tumor is detected early. Unfortunately, early diagnosis of cancer can be quite difficult. On the early stages, disease is asymptomatic. As a result, cancer at this stage is more commonly found by chance in the course of routine medical checks.

Early diagnostics is key to successful cancer treatments

Thanks to the introduction of early accessible diagnostic approaches, some of the most common malignancies are now detected earlier and have much better survival rates. Introduction of breast screening by mammograms led to a significant drop in the breast cancer mortality. Similar effect was achieved by introducing PSA tests for the prostate cancer.

This early detection success is not shared by many other cancer types. For instance, lung cancer, the most common type of malignancies worldwide, remains notoriously difficult to discover at early stages. This is a contributing factor to the lung cancer survival statistics, which remains one of the worst among all cancers. Early diagnostic for many other cancers such as stomach cancer and ovarian cancer remains to be improved.

But cancer research is full of surprises, and breakthrough can come from completely unexpected corner. One of the new diagnostic techniques which receives lots of attention now is based on the use of breath tests. The idea is simple. Blood circulating through the lungs gives away some volatile products of our metabolism. In fact, a significant proportion of gaseous waste products from our body are removed by exhaling.

Cancerous cells produce significant amount of volatile chemicals that can be identified in the breath. Many of these chemical compounds are characteristic for cancer and not produced by normal cells of the body. They form a specific chemical signature that can be identified by analyzing the composition of exhaled air. The proper analysis of this kind can be done with the use of complex and sophisticated equipment, such as gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometer. Unfortunately, this technique is too sophisticated for routine checks in hospitals. Interpretation of analytical results is also not easy and requires specially trained personnel.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Rainer Ehmann, Enole Boedeker, Uwe Friedrich et al. (2012) Canine scent detection in the diagnosis of lung cancer: Revisiting a puzzling phenomenon. European Respiratory Journal 39, no. 3, 669-676
  • Z.-Q. Xu, Y. Y. Broza, R. Ionsecu, et al. (5 March 2013) A nanomaterial-based breath test for distinguishing gastric cancer from benign gastric conditions. British Journal of Cancer 108, 941-950.