Breath tests offer the potential for non-invasive detection of cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. UK researchers have now launched a clinical trial — the PAN Cancer Early Detection Study — to develop a breath test that could indicate the presence of multiple cancer types.
The trial will be run by Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre in collaboration with Owlstone Medical, which developed the Breath Biopsy technology being used. Breath Biopsy measures volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gaseous molecules that can be sampled quickly from exhaled breath. The trial will evaluate whether Breath Biopsy can differentiate between patients with and without different cancers.
“We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease,” says lead investigator Rebecca Fitzgerald. “Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier — it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology. Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.”
VOCs are produced as cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism. If their metabolism becomes altered, such as in cancer and various other conditions, cells can release a different pattern of VOCs. The researchers aim to use the Breath Biopsy technology to identify these patterns and use them to characterize specific diseases.
The researchers plan to collect samples from 1500 participants, including healthy controls, to analyse VOCs in the breath for signals of different cancer types. Patients will breathe into the system for 10 minutes to provide a sample that will then be processed in Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy laboratory. The trial will start with patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers and then expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.
VOCs originating from all parts of the body are captured in breath, making the approach applicable to a wide range of diseases. By looking across multiple cancer types, this trial will help determine whether cancer signals are similar or different, and how early these signals can be detected.
As the trial progresses, some participants will go on to be diagnosed with cancer, and their samples will be compared with those who don’t develop the disease. If the technology proves able to accurately identify cancer, the team hopes that it could in future be used in GP practices to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.
“There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease,” explains Owlstone Medical’s CEO Billy Boyle. “The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need.”
David Crosby, head of early detection research at Cancer Research UK, notes that technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionize the future detection and diagnosis of cancer. “Early detection research has faced an historic lack of funding and industry interest, and this work is a shining example of Cancer Research UK’s commitment to reverse that trend and drive vital progress in shifting cancer diagnosis towards earlier stages,” he says.
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