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Trial Testing Breath Detection for Cancer

Breath collection device

ReCIVA breath collection device (Owlstone Medical)

3 January 2018. A clinical trial is recruiting participants to test a technology that analyzes exhaled breath for indicators of specific types of cancer. The study is conducted by the charitable foundation Cancer Research UK, and funded by Owlstone Medical Ltd., a company in Cambridge, U.K. developing the detection technology.

Owlstone Medical is a spin-off enterprise from its parent company Owlstone Inc., formed to commercialize research at University of Cambridge to detect volatile organic compounds, carbon-based chemicals generated by other physical processes emitted as gases. Owlstone Inc.’s technology licenses research on field asymmetric ion mobility spectrometry or Faims, that identifies characteristic volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere, such as those indicating chemical warfare agents.

The Owlstone technology uses a chip-style device that sends an electric field through air samples captured in a chamber holding an analytical buffer gas. The electric field causes target compounds to reverse their polarity, attracting them to electrodes that measure their concentration.

For cancer detection, the system seeks out volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath that point to metabolized remnants of cellular processes from tumors, with specific metabolites identifying specific cancer types. This type of breath biopsy, says Owlstone, is a non-invasive, 10-minute test that can detect cancers in their early stages, as well as be used in precision-medicine therapies. The company says the technology can also be used to detect respiratory diseases such as asthma and intestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease.

The clinical trial will first screen as many as 1,500 individuals with the Owlstone ReCIVA breath collection device, both healthy people and those with cancer, in Cambridge. From those initial samples, the study team will select 82 participants with several types of solid-tumor cancers and match them demographically against 82 healthy individuals. The trial will first select people with throat and stomach cancer, but later add individuals with prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers.

The researchers plan to follow-up after 12 months, and additional breath tests will be taken with a 15 percent subset of the participants for validation. Owlstone’s lab will analyze and process the samples.

“We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease,” says University of Cambridge cancer professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, the trial’s lead researcher, in a joint statement. “Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier. It’s the crucial next step in developing this technology.”

Earlier cancer detection is a key objective of the trial. Cancer Research UK cites a 2016 report showing half of the cancers diagnosed in England are detected in their late stages. The organization says early detection is one of its top priorities, and spends more than £20 million ($US 25.2 million) a year in early detection research.

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