Flinders University Develops a Breath Test That Can Detect Head and Neck Cancer Early

Cancer is defined by the Australian Cancer Council as the disease of the body’s cells. It is a collection or a mass of abnormally growing cells that accumulate in the body and affect the normal physiology of the body. These abnormal cells can arise from any type of cell and therefore, form different types of cancers.

Scan of Head Neck Cancer

Scan of Head Neck Cancer. Image Courtesy of Akira Kouchiyama

There are approximately 100 types of cancers affecting approximately 442,4 individuals per 100,000 men and women annually. The mortality rate associate with cancer is around 158.3 per 100,000 men and women.

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Almost all cancers have their own risk factors and pathophysiologies but most of them have one similar feature, that is they are asymptomatic in earlier stages. Coincidentally, earlier stages also indicate the beginning of the disease, and cancer at this stage can be treated easily. But since most cancers do not produce any symptoms in the earlier stages, they go undiagnosed. In fact, some cancers are not diagnosed until it’s too late.

More often than not, the late diagnosis of cancer is associated with a worse prognosis than an earlier diagnosis. Although some cancers have screening programs for earlier detection, they are either invasive or uncomfortable procedures requiring medical specialists.

A Flinders University Study

In a study conducted by Nuwan Dharmawardana of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park, Australia, and his colleagues which was published in the British Journal of Cancer, they determined a novel, easy, and non-invasive way of cancer detection.

Dharmawardana and his team performed the study with the objective of identifying a breath test and testing its efficacy and accuracy in detecting Head and Neck Squamous Cell Cancer (HNSCC). According to the research team, using the breath analysis could help with earlier diagnosis and also with predictions of treatment outcomes.

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Method of study

For this study, the researchers studied 181 subjects suspected to have HNSCC and obtained breath samples from these subjects before initiation of any treatment plans. The breath samples were then run through a mass spectrometer to check for volatile compounds in the breath. Diagnosis of cancer was confirmed with histopathology after which, a binomial logistic progression model was applied to differentiate between cancer and control subjects using the breath analysis derived variables.

Results of the body

In the study, 66% of the subjects were diagnosed with primary tumors and 58% were found to have regional lymph node metastasis. Researchers, speaking of the logistic model variables, concluded that those variables had a specificity and sensitivity of 86% and 80% respectively.

Overall, they found that the breath analysis or breath test could be used for earlier detection of cancer with accuracy, achieving the initial goal of the study. They claim that it is a practical, and non-invasive method that should be studied further to be able to apply it to the GP or primary care clinics rather than specialists’ offices. They say, ‘Future studies should be conducted to determine the applicability of breath analysis for early identification of HNSCC’.

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Development of a non-invasive exhaled breath test for the diagnosis of head and neck cancer

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