Your breath says more about you than you might think - not just how inebriated you are or what you had for breakfast. A new type of sensor that can 'sniff out' traces of ovarian cancer in a patient's breath has been developed by researchers in Israel, offering a low-cost, and painless way to screen for the disease.
We've seen the idea of a breathalyser being used to detect different types of cancer before, but what makes this new technology stand out is the amount of data that can be captured, as well as the compact size and low cost of the associated kit. On top of that, the researchers claim it's safer and more accurate than the detection methods that are currently in use.
The sensors in the breathalyser are looking for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath samples: they use a flexible polymer substrate covered in gold nanoparticles to which the VOCs attach. By applying electrodes and a voltage to the resulting film, patterns can be identified, which are then matched up to various diseases.
"Changes in metabolism that accompany a specific illness cause changes in the composition and/or concentration of VOCs in the breath," lead researcher Nicole Kahn from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology told Jordan Rosenfeld at Mental Floss.
Based on some initial testing, Kahn and her colleagues were able to correctly detect ovarian cancer in 82 percent of cases, which they say is a significant improvement on current detection methods, including special blood tests and transvaginal ultraound. The fact that having to give a breath sample is a non-invasive, safe, and easy often for patients means more women will hopefully be given the option to get screened. Right now, only high-risk patients are tested for ovarian cancer to reduce the chance of false positives, and seeing as most women don’t get symptoms until the disease is quite advanced, it means many cases go undetected until it’s too late.
With further research, Kahn thinks the same technique could be used to test for different types of cancer, as well as other diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. She also says there's still room for improvement in making the sensors smaller and more sensitive before they're ready for clinical use.
Ovarian cancer currently accounts for around 3 percent of cancers among women, and with around 200,000 cases reported in the US each year, it's one of the rarer forms of the disease. However, it causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, and so new techniques to battle it would have a significant impact.
The study has been published in the journal Nano Letters.