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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cancer breath

It turns out that it’s not just onions that linger our breath.  Each time we exhale, we exude a complex mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Interestingly, these VOCs differ depending on the state of our health.  For years, doctors have been attempting to use specific VOCs to diagnose cancer.  Peter Mazzone of the Cleveland Clinic and his colleagues from that clinic, from the University of Illinois and from Florida Hospital have now used that technique to not only identify cancer patients but to discriminate between types of cancer. 

For their study, the researchers used a colorimetric sensor array.  This device, designed by the Metabolomx company, is calibrated to determine the concentration of VOCs in a person’s breath. Encouragingly, the colorimetric test accurately picked out the lung cancer patients over 80% of the time.  Of the people who tested positive for cancer, the test was also about 80% accurate in discriminating between different types and stages of cancer.

This study only involved 229 people, but more experiments are being done.  Obviously, doctors cannot yet rely on a breath test over other methods of diagnosis.  However, analysis of VOCs may one day be used in conjunction with other tests, or as an initial screening tool.