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Handheld breath sensor could help detect cancer

University of Oklahoma researchers are working on a test that measures suspected cancer biomarkers in the breath and could lead to an easy-to-use detection device.

Molecular beam epitaxy system
This molecular-beam epitaxy system is used to make small laser materials for use in compact and low-cost breath meters for early cancer detection.
University of Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma researchers are working on a high-tech breath test that could one day help detect cancer.

The team is using mid-infrared laser technology to measure suspected cancer biomarkers in the breath, such as ethane, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde, and to establish the relationship between those gas molecules and the disease. Ultimately, they hope their work will lead to easy-to-use detection devices that don't emit radiation.

But it may take a while before doctors have such devices in hand. Patrick McCann, an OU professor of electrical and computer engineering who's leading the team, predicts that it will take 5 to 10 years for the gadgets to find their way into clinics.

Arnaud Sow
Arnaud Sow, an OU graduate student from France, processes a sample for laser fabrication. University of Oklahoma

Nonetheless, he sees them as a potentially profound advancement. "A device that measures cancer-specific gases in exhaled breath would change medical research as we know it," he said.

McCann expects to rely on nanotechnology to improve laser performance and shrink laser systems, which would allow battery-powered operation of a low-cost handheld device. The sensor, he says, would be particularly useful for cancers that are difficult to detect, such as lung cancer.

The researchers' work stems from studies showing that dogs can detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. A March 2006 issue of the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies reported that by smelling breath samples, dogs identified breast and lung cancer patients with accuracies of 88 and 97 percent, respectively.

But even though data shows that dogs can detect cancer by smell, medical researchers still have to figure out exactly what the gases are that they're sniffing. And that's keeping McCann's group busy.

The team has been active in related research since 1991. One outcome of their work includes the spin-out of EkipsTechnologies, a start-up based in Norman, Okla., that's applying mid-infrared laser technology to develop breath analysis instruments to diagnose and monitor diseases such as asthma.

Other links between cancer and scent have emerged recently, as well. Scientists from Philadelphia's Monell Center reported at the American Chemical Society's annual conference last week that a common form of skin cancer could be diagnosed by its distinctive smell.