A Breath Test for Cancer?

cigarette smoker

One thing that makes cancer so frightening is the way it can squirrel itself away in the body’s innermost recesses. For this reason, many cancers can only be diagnosed with invasive procedures–and often aren’t detected at all, until it’s too late. But a study published today in the British Journal of Cancer suggests that for some kinds of cancer, a diagnosis could come from a simple breath test.

A team of Israeli researchers found that by using gold nanoparticle sensors, an “e-nose” device could distinguish healthy breath from that of patients with breast, lung, prostate, or colon cancer. “The results showed that the nanosensor array could differentiate between ‘healthy’ and ‘cancerous’ breath, and, furthermore, between the breath of patients having different cancer types,” write the study authors. The e-nose was able to do this because tumors emit trace amounts of distinctive volatile organic compounds.

The data is still preliminary, with further testing needed. But the researchers suggest that their method could detect cancer in its earliest stages–even before an X-ray can. Many of the prostate cancer test group had Stage 1 cancer. So if the e-nose proves successful, it would be a major leap forward for the science of cancer detection. In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to stick to prevention–and those cigarettes make your breath stink, anyway.