As any medical practitioners will tell you, when it comes to cancer, early detection is key. And interestingly enough, there are a number of ways to do this. In addition to visual identification (i.e. change in skin pigment), or feel (i.e. noticing lumps), there is also the means of olfactory detection. Apparently, on top of its many other noticeable effects, cancer emits a smell which can lead to early detection and treatment.
Over the years, a great deal of anecdotal and clinical research has shown that dogs are capable of sniffing out cancer in patients. Building on this knowledge, a group of scientists from Israel and China and working at Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology) have developed a stomach-cancer-sniffing device made out of nanomaterials that essentially works the same way as a breathalyzer.
In an initial screening test, the device was used on 130 patients and was over 90% accurate in detecting not only the existence of cancer, but determining what stage it was in. Compared to conventional methods, which involves inserting a flexible tube that is inserted through the patient’s nose and into their digestive system, this test is far less invasive and unpleasant.
What’s more, this process – known as endoscopy – is quite expensive, making a comparatively cheap breathalyzer even more attractive to both doctor’s and patients. And of course, this test is generally used when the patient begins showing signs of being in an advanced stage of cancer development, and is therefore not part of an early detection regimen.
In an interview with the British Journal of Cancer, Professor Hossam Haick, lead researcher from the Technion, desribed the benefits of their new device:
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… Nevertheless, these results are at an early stage and support the concept of a breath test to detect stomach cancers but further validations are needed… But if found to be accurate enough, the nanomaterial breath test presents a new possibility for screening a population for stomach cancer, which would hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis of the disease.
The results of this latest study are promising – although large-scale trials will now be needed to confirm these findings. 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. Any test that could help diagnose stomach cancers earlier would make a difference to patients’ long-term survival.
Naturally, Professor Haick admitted that more testing is needed before this can become a regular practice, but both he and his staff are encouraged by their results thus far. What’s more, they clearly have the support of many doctors in the field who see this test as an effective and preferable means of diagnosing cancer over conventional methods.
So for intents and purposes, it would not be farfetched to imagine that during your a trip to see your doctor, he or she might tell you to insert a tube into your mouth and blow, just to make sure you stomach tissue was healthy, pink, and cancer free!