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Clinical trials have begun on a new device that’s designed to pick up the different “signatures” of different cancers.

Imagine being able to detect cancer simply by breathing into a device similar to a breathalyzer.

It could become a reality, as a new clinical trial will soon evaluate this technology.

Researchers say the new device has the potential to detect multiple types of cancer.

It could offer an early detection method that would allow for earlier treatments.

Researchers from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre are conducting the trial with Owlstone Medical, which developed the Breath Biopsy technology.

“The potential to detect a cancer early through a simple, noninvasive breath test is really exciting,” said Dr. Nicholas Rohs, an assistant professor of hematology and oncology in thoracic medical oncology at The Blavatnik Family – Chelsea Medical Center at Mount Sinai in New York.

“The earlier we discover a cancer, the more likely we can cure it,” he told Healthline.

He says that although the technology still has a long way to go, it could be a “powerful clinical tool” if refined.

A cancer breath test may sound like something new, but it’s been studied in the past. It’s also used to diagnose gastrointestinal conditions.

In addition, we already know that people with kidney or liver failure, for example, have changes in the scent of their breath, Rohs notes.

How the test works

Here’s how the test works.

People breathe into a device containing the Breath Biopsy technology, which detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

These are odorous molecules released in our breath, which develop when cells metabolize.

When a cell’s metabolism is altered, as it does with cancer, the cells can release a different VOC pattern. The test is designed to identify patterns associated with different forms of the disease.

“The idea is to detect volatiles which may have signatures specific to different cancer types,” Dr. Rebecca Fitzgerald, the lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, told Healthline.

Some evidence supports that different types of cancers have different VOC patterns.

“The metabolism of different sorts of cancer cells is different according to the mutations that perturb cells in specific ways,” Fitzgerald explained.

Hopefully, the researchers can correlate different VOC patterns to specific types of cancers, she adds.

Forget invasive biopsies with long analysis times.

Finding out if you have cancer could someday soon be as simple as waiting for a 10-minute blood test.

That’s what researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are predicting.

The scientists developed a methodology that allowed them to see pattern changes in DNA caused by cancer cells “at the whole genome level within minutes,” according to a university press release.

In the United States, where both men and women have a nearly 4-in-10 chance of developing cancer in their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society, such a test could revolutionize early detection and treatment of the deadly disease.

Cancer isn’t a single illness with one definable set of behaviors and characteristics.

It’s a constellation of diseases typified by malignant cell growth that can occur virtually anywhere in the body.

That’s made coming up with a test that can detect many or even all cancers challenging at best.

That is, perhaps, until now.

A finding as good as gold

Good science takes time, as the saying goes, and the path to this discovery was no exception.

It also took a little bit of gold.

“This research started from an observation that DNA from cancer cells showed a different affinity toward gold surfaces than normal DNA,” Laura Garcia Carrascosa, PhD, a research development manager at the Queensland university, and a study co-author, told Healthline.

That led to a four-year drive to understand why and how cancerous cells reacted to these gold nanoparticles and its implications for cancer detection.

They found that cancer cells reshape DNA at the genome level, creating their own “unique nano-scaled DNA signature” different from healthy cells, according to Abu Sina, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Queensland university and a study co-author.

The researchers also discovered that these unique signature nanostructures could be detected when they bonded themselves to gold nanoparticles in a solution.

In other words, blood or tissue samples that contained cancer signatures would make the solution change color. A simple test that could theoretically be performed in nearly any lab.

The early results showed the test was around 90 percent accurate in a trial that contained 200 human cancer samples as well as healthy, unaltered DNA.

This nano-scale DNA signature showed up not only in the DNA of breast cancer patients, but also prostate, colorectal, and lymphoma cancers.

“We now have an exciting time ahead, where we would like to initiate clinical trials with a larger sample size, and a larger representation of cancer types, and stages of disease, in order to validate our findings and establish the final clinical application,” Carrascosa said.

What it means

The laboratory is just the beginning, so it’ll be awhile before this test is commonplace at your local hospital, if at all.

But the promise is there.

Professor Matt Trau, PhD, another one of the researchers, said the scientists couldn’t be sure if these findings were the “Holy Grail of cancer detection,” but the simplicity of the test, coupled with its accessibility and ease, are appealing factors for continued study.

Current blood tests used in aiding a cancer diagnosis are generally restricted to detecting actual blood cancers such as leukemia, or merely giving clues to doctors that cancer might be present, according to the Mayo Clinic.

These exams include complete blood count (CBC) testing, which evaluates the number and type of blood cells in your blood, tumor marker tests, and blood protein testing.

But not all of these tests are good for all cancers and some of these tests — like tumor marker tests — can produce false positives when the body creates these markers in certain noncancerous conditions.

“Blood-based cancer diagnostics that detect circulating tumor DNA have gained tremendous traction in the past five years with several commercial products on the market, [though] none are fully validated yet,” said Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

However, “this technology could potentially be a simple, universal method to detect and monitor cancer treatments over time,” he told Healthline. “Work needs to be done to show this, but it’s something that is of tremendous value.”

“However, we still don’t know how early the cancer could be detected or if this test could be used in combination with other tests to obtain more precise information about the tumor type and stage,” Carrascosa said. “Without that information, it is still difficult to tell to prospective consumers what they could expect from this test and have a clear vision of the potential use of this discovery.”

In the meantime, consumers can focus on reducing their risk of developing cancer by eating a healthy, largely plant-based diet and limiting their intake of sugar and carbs, as well as making sure they get regularly recommended cancer screenings (for lung, prostate, cervical, and colon cancers, especially).

Photo from Owlstone Medical Ltd.

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