Tech trial hopes to detect multiple cancers

Cancer Research UK has funded a trial to test whether technology can identify cancers from a patients breath.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, a Cancer Research UK-funded scientist from the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge, is leading the trial “The PAN trial is seeing if you can use a breath test device that detects volatile molecules from the breath to identify patients that might have an early cancer that they don’t know about.”

The trial, running in collaboration with Owlstone Medical at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, will test the company’s Breath Biopsy® technology that picks up distinctive molecules released by cells as they make and process energy (metabolism). It’s the first trial to look at whether this technology can pick up a range of cancers.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald “Intuitively, lung cancer seems the most obvious cancer to be detected in the breath,” adding that lung cancer breath studies using the Owlstone tech are already ongoing. But because of the way metabolites are recycled in the body, many other volatile molecules from other areas of the body end up in the breath too.”

By 2021, Fitzgerald and the team at Owlstone aim to have collected and analysed the breath of 1,500 people. They want to find patterns, or ‘signatures’, in the breath molecules from people who are either healthy or who have suspected oesophageal, stomach, prostate, kidney, bladder, liver or pancreatic cancer.

“This is a pilot study, so first we’re looking at a range of cancers to see if we get a signal and compare the signal to healthy individuals,” says Fitzgerald.

If the sophisticated tech can tell apart cancer signatures and healthy ones, the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there’s just one ‘cancer signature’.

Depending on how these early trials go, the breath test could reach further than keeping an eye on those with a raised risk of cancer. This technology has the potential to be used on the wider population as a screening tool to find early cancers in people without symptoms of cancer.

“We need to make it as easy as possible for the individual to have a breath test,” she says. “Ideally the device would be in the GP setting.”

But before the Breath Biopsy® can reach GP surgeries, several large studies would need to confirm any benefits outweigh any risks.

“Eventually, I imagine it used as a screening tool where you test well people, or a triage test that can sit in the surgery to help GPs know who to refer.”