Owlstone, CRUK start hunt for breath biomarkers of cancer

Cancer cells image
Owlstone will analyze breath samples to find biomarkers of cancer.

Owlstone Medical and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) have begun a clinical trial designed to identify biomarkers of cancer in breath samples. The goal is to find volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that indicate the presence of cancer, enabling physicians to make quick, noninvasive diagnoses. 

Investigators running the PAN Cancer trial will collect breath samples from patients with suspected cancer diagnoses. Samples gathered using Owlstone’s CE-marked ReCIVA Breath Sampler will go to the British medtech company’s laboratory for analysis. The laboratory will compare breath samples from patients with and without cancer to find biomarkers unique to people with tumors.

Owlstone is looking for biomarkers of cancers of the bladder, brain, breast, head and neck, kidney, esophagus, pancreas and prostate. The trial’s broad, pan-cancer scope moves Owlstone beyond its initial focus on colorectal and lung cancers.

Work on the colorectal and lung cancer breath-based tests is more advanced. Owlstone is enrolling up to 3,000 people suspected to have lung cancer in a clinical trial. That study expanded to its current enrollment target on the strength of interim sensitivity and specificity data. And Owlstone is recruiting a further 1,400 patients in a colorectal cancer screening trial.

If the CRUK-partnered PAN Cancer trial uncovers promising breath biomarkers for tumors in other organs, Owlstone could expand its clinical-phase pipeline of diagnostics with tests targeting these diseases. 

The idea behind the current and possible future tests is to use Owlstone’s VOC analysis capabilities to detect changes in exhaled metabolites resulting from cancer mutations. This could help physicians detect cancers earlier.  

“Some cancers are diagnosed very late when there are few treatment options available. Noninvasive detection of cancer in breath could make a real difference to survival,” Richard Gilbertson, M.D., Ph.D., director of CRUK’s center in Cambridge, said in a statement. 

The potential for Owlstone’s technology to usher in this change in how cancer is diagnosed has led investors to commit $23.5 million to its progress since it spun out of its parent company last year.