lung cancer screening lung cancer screening The NA-NOSE is a non-invasive screening test for lung cancer. (Photo: Technion)

The breath test that saves: Electronic nose detects lung cancer

Breathalyzer-style test successfully identified the presence of cancer in clinical trials.

Diagnosing lung cancer normally involves an X-ray, a CT scan or a biopsy. Each of those techniques has proven success rates, but they take time – and early diagnosis is critical for treatment. A new technique developed by researchers at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology could help to diagnose lung cancer and other conditions much more quickly.

The researchers have developed a system called NA-NOSE – the Nanoscale Artificial Nose. When a patient breathes into a small device – think of a Breathalyzer – the device can detect volatile organic compounds in the gas that is exhaled. These organic compounds can be used to identify the presence of diseases, a process called diagnostic breath testing.

The system is said to be cost-effective and highly sensitive to detecting compounds in the breath. It is less invasive and more comfortable than existing tests and poses no threat to the patient. It can also be used before a patient starts experiencing symptoms, making it possible to detect cancer even in its earliest stages.

NA-NOSE has been in the works since 2007 and since then has undergone several successful clinical trials. The system's inventor, Professor Hossam Haick of Technion, presented details on one of those trials at a recent meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. "Our NA-NOSE was able to detect lung cancer with 90 percent accuracy even when the lung nodule was tiny and hard to sample," he said, as quoted by the Daily Mail. "It was even able to discriminate between subtypes of cancer, which was unexpected." The system could even tell if a cancer was benign or malignant based on which volatile organic compounds it emitted.

Several other systems currently in the works use similar techniques. Finnish researchers are using electronic noses to "sniff" urine samples to detect prostate cancer. The Gates Foundation funded development and testing of a device to diagnose tuberculosis

The idea of electronic noses has actually been around for more than 20 years. Dr. Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania, told CNN those inventions failed because "they were way oversold." He added, "While the devices today don't come close to mimicking the nose of a dog, I'm confident that they will help to recognize diseases based on body odors." In fact, a study published this past May found that specially trained dogs could sniff out prostate cancer 98 percent of the time.

NA-NOSE may not be as good as a cancer-sniffing dog quite yet, but it has been licensed by a Boston company called Alpha Szenszor, which hopes to have it on the market for doctor's offices in a few years.

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