Scientists at the Technion in Haifa have created a device that they hope will be able to detect cancer with a simple breath test. In an initial trial, the “breathalyzer” test was able to detect lung cancer with 86 percent accuracy.
The new device was revealed this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Researchers hope the test will provide a simple, cost-effective and non-invasive method of detecting cancer. In addition, the test is capable of detecting cancers that are not yet large enough to show up on X-rays or CT scans, allowing for earlier diagnosis that could save lives.
The system works by testing for chemicals that tend to be present in lungs affected by cancer but not in healthy lungs. The Technion team decided to test for four such chemicals: ethylbenzene, decane, heptanol and trimethylbenzene.
Patients' breath is sent over a circuit made of silicon embedded with gold nanoparticles. If the breath contains the organic compounds common to cancer sufferers, the circuit's electrical resistance will change.
The research team was led by Hossam Haick. The team had developed a similar test in the past, using carbon nanotubes. The silicon-gold combination was found to be superior, they said. Unlike the device that used carbon nanotubes, the latest development is not sensitive to the water vapor found in lungs.
In addition, the latest version of the test works even on patients who have recently ingested alcohol, food, coffee or tobacco. Previous versions required patients to abstain before the test in order to avoid false results.
Haick and his team have patented their device, but will continue to work to perfect it. The device must pass further clinical trials before being put to use, at which point scientists will face the challenge of creating versions of the test that are simple and inexpensive enough to be used in day-to-day practice in hospitals and clinics.