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New Study Could Lead to a Mesothelioma Breath Test

breath test for mesotheliomaA large new study now underway may eventually make it possible to create a mesothelioma breath test.

Cancer Research UK has launched a two-year clinical trial of the Breath Biopsy. The Breath Biopsy is a device that detects molecules exhaled by people with cancer.

The Need for Early Mesothelioma Detection

Malignant mesothelioma is one of the deadliest types of cancer. Most people who get mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos. By the time they receive a diagnosis, many mesothelioma patients have advanced disease.

Late diagnosis is one of the main reasons people with mesothelioma often die within a year. When mesothelioma cancer is in an advanced stage, it is less likely to respond to treatment.

Scientists around the world are searching for ways to diagnose mesothelioma earlier. Tests for cancer biomarkers in the blood and lung fluid do not work well for early mesothelioma.

The UK scientists hope that a mesothelioma breath test will be a better alternative.   

Device Picks up Cancer “Signature”

Cancer causes biochemical changes in the body. These biochemical changes produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that a person exhales.

The theory is that different types of cancer produce different combinations of VOCs.

The Breath Biopsy measures these VOCs to see what type of cancer produced them. A mesothelioma breath test should have a unique breath “signature”.

Cancer Research UK is recruiting up to 1,500 people in Cambridge to study the technology. Some of the study participants will be cancer patients and some will be healthy people.

Study subjects will breathe into the device for ten minutes. The device collects and stores the VOCs for later analysis in a lab.

People with suspected stomach or esophagus cancer will try the test first. Then other types of cancer patients will test it. The researchers will compare the VOCs of different kinds of cancers to look for patterns.

“We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier,” lead investigator Rebecca Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier.”

Advantages of a Mesothelioma Breath Test

One big advantage of a mesothelioma breath test is that it is simple and painless. Researchers say people may be more likely to have a test when there is no needle or scalpel involved.

A mesothelioma breath test would also be quick and cheap. The company that developed the Breath Biopsy is hoping that many doctors will want to use it.

“The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need,” said Billy Boyle, CEO of Owlstone Medical, the UK company that makes the test.

If it works the way it is supposed to, the Breath Biopsy could be used along with existing tests to detect mesothelioma earlier.


“Is a breath test key to detecting cancer?”, January 3, 2019, BBC News online, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-46746552

Von Radowitz, John, “Breath test that could revolutionise cancer diagnosis to be trialled in Britain”, January 3, 2019, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/cancer-breath-test-breathalyser-molecules-liver-prostate-kidney-bladder-pancreatic-a8708861.html

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