Promising breath-test for cancer

The global quest to use a person’s breath analysis for rapid, inexpensive and accurate early-stage testing for cancer and other diseases has taken a leap forward in Australia.

In a new paper in the British Journal of Cancer, Flinders University researchers have reported significant progress in developing a method to test exhaled breath profiles which accurately differentiate head and neck cancer from non-cancer patients.

Breath samples were collected from 181 patients suspected of having early-stage head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) before any treatment began.

“We sought to determine the diagnostic accuracy of breath analysis as a non-invasive test for detecting head and neck cancer, which in time may result in a simple method to improve treatment outcomes and patient morbidity,” says lead researchers Dr Roger Yazbek and Associate Professor Eng Ooi.

Flinders University medical researcher Dr Roger Yazbek with a breath sample bag used in the latest study.

Worldwide, head and neck cancer accounts for 6% of all cancers, killing more than 300,000 people per year globally. Tobacco, alcohol and poor oral hygiene are known major risk factors for this cancer.

A surge in human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated head and neck cancers is seeing these cancers affecting a much younger population, the researchers say.

Current therapies are effective at treating early-stage disease, however late-stage presentations are common, and often associated with poor prognosis and high treatment-related morbidity.

In the Australian study, a selected ion flow-tube mass spectrometer was used to analyse breath for volatile organic compounds. Using statistical modelling, the Flinders researchers were able to develop a breath test that could differentiate cancer and control (benign disease) patients, with an average sensitivity and specificity of 85%.

Diagnosis was confirmed by analysis of tissue biopsies.

“With these strong results, we hope to trial the method in primary care settings, such as GP clinics, to further develop its use in early-stage screening for HNSCC in the community,” says co-lead author Dr Nuwan Dharmawardana.

The article, Development of a non-invasive exhaled breath test for the diagnosis of head and neck cancer (September 2020) by Nuwan Dharmawardana, Thomas Goddard, Charmaine Woods, David I. Watson, Eng H. Ooi and Roger Yazbeck has been published in the British Journal of Cancer DOI: 10.1038/s41416-020-01051-9

Dr Dharmawardana was funded by the Garnett Passé and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation Academic Surgeon Scientist Research Scholarship. Associate Professor Ooi and Dr Yazbek were funded by the Australia
and New Zealand Head and Neck Cancer Society Foundation. Dr Yazbek is also supported by the Catherine Marie Enright Kelly Research Fellowship.


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College of Medicine and Public Health