Breath biomarkers could breathe life into lung cancer tests

Researchers from Israel and the U.S. have brought the possibility of a lung cancer breath test a step closer by seeing whether profiles of chemicals in the breath can split the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous nodules in the lung.

In a pilot study, the researchers collected breath from a group of patients with benign or malignant nodules in their lungs and created profiles of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the exhaled breath using chemical analysis techniques. The patients then had their diagnoses checked using tissue samples.

The biomarker profiles could pick out those that were cancerous, and whether they were in early-stage or advanced disease. They could also differentiate between two different kinds of lung cancer--adenocarcinoma and squamous-cell carcinoma--which could help to select the right treatment for individual patients. The results were published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology.

CT scans are used in lung cancer screening, and while these have cut the death rate by a fifth, they don't separate out benign and cancerous nodules, meaning that patients need a lung biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Lung biopsies are painful, invasive, and expensive, and a breath-based test could cut the need for these, as well as speed up diagnosis and treatment.

As the researchers point out, it is important to remember that this was a small study, and larger studies will be needed to validate these results.

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- see the abstract