Breath test detects cancer markers


Early and Effective

After his wife died of colon cancer at 36 in 2014, Billy Boyle, 39, became a man on a mission. Boyle, who had been doing research on how volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could be used to diagnose complications from chemical warfare, applied the idea to a breath test that could detect cancer-linked chemicals at very early stages.

Now Boyle, founder of Owlstone Medical Ltd., believes that the device, the ReCIVA Breath Sampler, could save 100,000 lives and save health care providers $1.5 billion per year by detecting various kinds of cancer.  The company’s Breath Biopsy® platform, based on microchip sensor technology, sniffs out chemical markers to detect cancer early when more people will survive. Boyle projects that the devices will be in clinics late next year and will cost less than $100 each.

As Adam Popescu reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The ReCIVA (as in “respiration collector for in vitro analysis”) breath sampler can detect the kinds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in people’s breath that are early indicators of lung cancer, colon cancer, and other diseases. It’s meant to substitute for costlier, more invasive CT scans and biopsies.”

Operation of the device is simple. Patients just put on a mask and breathe, and an embedded sensor ionizes the VOCs the patients exhale to provide a chemical fingerprint. A computer connected to the mask then analyzes the readings to determine whether the patients need further tests for cancer or other diseases.

As Boyle explained, “We know that in cancer, early diagnosis is what will save lives. But a lot of tests today are not very pleasant and that means people just don't show up for the tests. You need to have tests which are acceptable to the patients. So, if you don't like getting a blood draw, it doesn't get better than breath."

Owlstone Medical Ltd., a 100-employee startup in Cambridge, England, has raised $38.5 million in venture funding to expand. Various hospitals in Europe have been conducting Phase II clinical trials, supported by $1.6 million from the U.K.’s National Health Service. Last November Owlstone also enlisted GlaxoSmithKline Plc in an effort to identify markers for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which affects about 329 million people around the world, according to Clyde Hughes in Newsmax.

Owlstone’s website cites some grim statistics. Cancer caused 8.8 million deaths in 2015. One in two people will be diagnosed with it. Colon and lung cancer are the most prevalent forms of cancer, but they have poor rates of 10-year survival, in spite of 40 years of drug development. Early detection could help to cure more than half of lung cancer patients and 93 percent of colon cancer patients with currently existing treatments. When detected late, less than 5 percent of these patients will survive 5 years. At present, only 14 percent of patients who have lung cancer and 9 percent of patients who have colon cancer get a diagnosis “at this curable early stage.” The best chance to save people is “not in developing new drugs but increasing rates of early diagnosis through improved cancer screening.”

Boyle concluded, “In the UK only 14.5 percent of people are diagnosed with early stage, treatable lung cancer. If we are able to increase this to 25 percent, we’d save 10,000 lives in the UK alone.”


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