Researchers are developing a method that would enable doctors to screen patients for lung cancer just by letting them breathe into a hand-held device.
The idea has been put forward by a team of scientists from the University of Liverpool and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology after they discovered that is it technically feasible to distinguish between healthy and cancerous lung cells just by analysing the vapour they produce in a closed container.
"These findings tell us that it's theoretically possible to develop a test that could diagnose early lung cancer in the breath of patients,” said Mike Davies from the University of Liverpool Roy Castle Lung Cancer Research Programme.
"This is a potential step towards developing a handheld device that could aid lung cancer screening and diagnosis. It could also be used to help match patients to the right treatment by providing doctors with a snapshot of the genetic make-up of their individual tumour."
Lung cancer is an insidious and deadly disease with less than ten per cent of the patients surviving for more than five years since the diagnoses. The extremely low survival rate is to a great extent caused by the fact that most individuals only seek medical help after the condition has advanced too far. As with all cancers, early treatment provides the best chances.
"The current procedure for identifying lung cancer is a lengthy process, and waiting for tests and results can be frustrating and demoralising,” said Professor Stephen Spiro, deputy chairman of the British Lung Foundation. “Patients must undergo biopsies, which can be uncomfortable and may not even be possible for older patients.
But the researchers warn there is still a very long way to go to bring the idea from a laboratory to a reliable standardised test that could be used in GP practices. The team plans to test the technique on cancer patients to see whether it can pick up genetic changes in growing lung tumours.
The research has been published in the latest issue of British Journal of Cancer.