A Breath Test For Detecting Cancer?

Your breath may hold clues to a lot more than what you ate for lunch.

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Your breath may hold clues to a lot more than what you ate for lunch.

In the small study of less than 80 participants published in the British Journal of Surgery, researchers from the the University Aldo Moro of Bari in Italy found a profile of breath-based chemicals that are linked to colorectal cancer. The scientists collected exhaled breath from 37 patients with colorectal cancer and 41 healthy control participants, and evaluated them for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could be red flags for cancer. According to the researchers, cancer tissues operate differently compared to non-cancerous cells and may release a distinct chemical signature.

Indeed, the researchers identified 15 of 58 specific compounds in VOC that correlated with colorectal cancer, and were able to distinguish with over 75% accuracy which patients had cancer and which were healthy. Among the cancer patients, the team correctly identified 19 as having colorectal tumors.

(MORE: A New Way to Detect Lung Cancer? Dogs Can Sniff It Out)

Among men and women, colon cancer is the is the second leading cancer killer in the U.S. Having a simple and low-cost way to detect the disease could provide an alternative to colonoscopies, which are a deterrent for many people. “The technique of breath sampling is very easy and non-invasive, although the method is still in the early phase of development,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Donato F. Altomare in a statement. “Our study’s findings provide further support for the value of breath testing as a screening tool.”

The current study isn’t the first to analyze breath for cancer clues. Previous research in dogs has looked at the link between VOCs and detection; German researchers found that dogs could be trained to ‘sniff out’ lung cancer in patients by picking up on slight volatile organic compounds changes in patients’ breath. Other scientists have investigated changes in mouth odors as a harbinger for diabetes and kidney and liver disease.

More research is needed before breath detections can be used for reliable screening, Dr. Ted Gansler, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society told CNN. “The main goals of current screening tests are not just to find any colorectal cancer, but rather to find early–curable–cancers and precancerous polyps that can be removed to prevent cancer from developing.” According to Gansler, about only half of Americans ages 50 and older are currently getting tested for colon cancer.

Which is why techniques such as breath tests, while still in the early stages of research, could help more people to get diagnosed early, when treatments can slow or even reverse the course of the disease. Breath tests might also be a way for doctors to monitor cancer patients for tumors that recur, potentially helping them to avoid repeated bouts with the disease.