Test for cancer: a method to detect cancer may be on the horizon

Test for cancer: a method to detect cancer may be on the horizon
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Researchers have launched a clinical trial to develop a potential test for cancer, that being a breath test, analysing molecules that could indicate cancer presence at early stages.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, a Cancer Research UK-funded scientist from the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK, is leading the trial that’s looking to bring a potential test for cancer. And breath is all that is required.

A breath of cancer

The warning signs for cancer can be vague. When people go to their GP with symptoms like heartburn or indigestion, it’s hard to say during their first appointment if cancer is to blame or if, most often, it’s something far less serious.

At the moment, being offered a simple test that points either way, or flags those who need to go to a specialist for further tests, isn’t possible across a wide range of cancers.

A cancer breath test has huge potential to provide a non-invasive look into what’s happening in the body and could have the ability to help find cancer early. This technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.

Fitzgerald explains: “The PAN trial is seeing if you can use a breath test device that detects volatile molecules from the breath to identify patients that might have an early cancer that they don’t know about.”

Testing a range of cancers

The trial, running in collaboration with Owlstone Medical at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, UK, will test the company’s Breath Biopsy® technology that picks up distinctive molecules released by cells as they make and process energy (metabolism).

This is the first trial to look at whether this technology can pick up a range of cancers.

“Intuitively, lung cancer seems the most obvious cancer to be detected in the breath,” adds Fitzgerald, explaining that lung cancer breath studies using the Owlstone tech are already ongoing.

“But because of the way metabolites are recycled in the body, many other volatile molecules from other areas of the body end up in the breath too.”

Where can we go with this potential test for cancer?

Depending on the success of the trial, the breath test could reach further than keeping an eye on those with a raised risk of cancer. This test for cancer has the potential to be used on the wider population as a screening tool to find early cancers in people without symptoms of cancer.

“We need to make it as easy as possible for the individual to have a breath test,” says Fitzgerald.

“Ideally the device would be in the GP setting.”

The biggest challenge the researchers face is getting enough patients across the variety of cancers they want to investigate. But Fitzgerald and the team are confident that the simple, non-invasive nature of the test should hopefully mean it gets some interest.


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