Breathalizers Aren’t Just For Alcohol Anymore, New Breath Test Detects Stomach Cancer

New breath test analyzes particles in exhaled breath to detect cancer.

Scientists have developed a new way to test for stomach cancers. For those who have undergone the unpleasant experience of an endoscopy, this news is good news.

The new breath test uses a nanomaterial sensor to analyze the chemicals released in exhaled air. Unique chemical breath signatures can indicate developing stomach cancer. While this “bad breath” isn’t noticeable enough for humans to detect, a German study in 2010 showed that dogs could pick up the scent and detect early-stage cancers.

The new breath test, according to research published in the British Journal of Cancer, shows a 90% accuracy in distinguishing stomach cancer from other stomach complaints in 130 patients. The sensor also predicted accurately how far the cancer had spread.

Currently, stomach cancers are diagnosed via endoscopy, a procedure that is far more costly and invasive than the breath test. An endoscopy requires a specialist to stick a long, flexible tube with a small camera attached down the throat and into the digestive system of a sedated patient. Biopsies can be taken through the endoscope, and then analyzed by a lab.

The new breath test is not only more cost-effective, but is non-invasive and can be used by a general practitioner during a routine check-up. If the stomach cancer test is approved for general use, it could make a tremendous difference in healthcare. Particularly for those who do not have ready access to a specialist.

“The promising findings from this early study suggest that using a breath test to diagnose stomach cancers, as well as more benign complaints, could be a future alternative to endoscopies – which can be costly and time-consuming, as well as unpleasant to the patient,” said Dr. Hossam Haick of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the leader of the study.

The research shows that cancerous growths in the body release volatile organic compounds, which can be detected using the right methods. In the 130 sample patients complaining of stomach ailments, 37 had stomach cancer. Thirty-two had stomach ulcers and 61 had other ailments.

“Only one in five people are able to have surgery as part of their treatment as most stomach cancers are diagnosed at stages that are too advanced for surgery,” Kate Law, director of clinical research at Cancer Research UK, toldBBC News.

Early symptoms of stomach cancer often consist of indigestion, heartburn, and stomachaches. These symptoms are so like many other benign medical conditions that endoscopies are not deemed necessary until more serious symptoms — such as severe weight loss and bloody or black stools — are present. By that time, however, the cancer has generally spread and is inoperable, and often does not respond to treatment.

“Any test that could help diagnose stomach cancers earlier would make a difference to patients’ long-term survival,” adds Law.

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