A breathalyzer designed to detect the early signs of lung cancer is being tested at several British hospitals, with the aim of having the noninvasive technology in clinics in 2017, according to a Reuters report.

Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical has developed a microchip sensor technology to measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in patients’ exhaled breath. Breath testing is a recognized method for linking specific VOCs in exhaled breath to certain medical conditions, but current techniques are often expensive, slow, and complex.

The new sensor technology was originally developed to detect explosives and toxic gases but was reprogrammed to identify the chemical markers of diseases, with a lung cancer breathalyzer the first to reach clinical trials.

The chemical markers of lung cancer are present even in the earliest stage of the disease, according to Owlstone. The company told Reuters that its breathalyzer device can pick out these minute traces of cancer, meaning that current cancer treatments can be administered with a much greater chance of curing the disease.

Developed over 10 years with $28 million of investment, the device can detect and identify multiple chemicals in a gas flow at very low concentrations, typically parts per billion. Patients wear a breathalyzer mask and breathe normally for several minutes while the sample is collected.

The current study will involve up to 3,000 patients at 17 British hospitals who are due to undergo a biopsy because there is a concern that they may have lung cancer. Before having the biopsy, breath samples will be collected from the patients. Once the results of the biopsies are known, doctors will be able to validate the chemical markers that they detected in the breath as being lung cancer.

Source: Reuters; May 19, 2016.

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