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Researchers in the UK are trialling a breath test for early detection of cancer

Image shows a stock photo of a lab technician. Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a breath test to detect cancer in its early stages.
Image shows a stock photo of a lab technician. Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a breath test to detect cancer in its early stages. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Euronews and AP
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The breath test allows researchers to capture vapours and gases which can be analysed to detect the presence of biomarkers of certain cancers.


When it comes to fighting cancer, the sharpest tool we have in our arsenal is early detection because in certain cases, it can drastically improve patient outcomes.

With this in mind, a multidisciplinary team at Imperial College London have developed a new kind of breathalyser, which they say can detect certain forms of cancer in the crucial early stages of the disease.

The device uses a plastic bag and a metal cylinder known as a sorbent tube to collect a patient’s breath.

Lining the inside of the tube is a material coating that captures vapour and gases.

Once collected, the scientists use an instrument known as a thermal desorber to heat the samples and separate out the compounds contained in them.

This allows researchers to analyse and identify volatile gases that can serve as biomarkers of particular cancerous tumours.

“So the tumour and the environment around the tumour produce metabolites. Some of those metabolites can be detected in the gas phase, and we call them volatile compounds,” explained Professor George Hanna, the head of cancer and surgery at Imperial College London.

Professor Hanna has already overseen a number of trials using the breath test involving hundreds of patients and the team is currently recruiting more that 25,000 patients for further trials.

In 2024, the team will commence a triple blind clinical trial to assess how effective the breathalyser is at detecting cancer at an early stage.

Samples will be sent from doctors’ surgeries from about twenty centres across the UK and compared with the results of other detection methods.

Hanna believes his team’s efforts address a critical gap in the ability of health systems to make cancer testing available to all who need it.

Their breathalyser, if successful, would be a cheaper, quicker and more cost-effective alternative to an endoscopy, the procedure in which an instrument is inserted into the body to give a detailed view of its internal parts.

"The current practice for oesophagus and stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer is either to refer the patient for endoscopy or wait and see whether the symptoms get worse. If we refer everybody for endoscopy then there will be too many, the system will not cope. If we wait too much and the patient has an early cancer then it will become a late cancer by the time the patient has very definitive symptoms,” Hanna explained

“So what we think, rather than wait and see, do the (breathalyser) test. If the test is positive then the patient will be referred for investigation. If the test is negative then we assure the patient. So the test will replace almost ‘wait and see’,” he added.

The research is being partly funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK.

If successful the breath test could save thousands of lives in Briton alone according to the charity.

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Aisling Ní Chúláin

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