Researchers trial breath test device for cancer

Image courtesy of Owlstone Medical Ltd

Samples from 1,500 people will be collected and then analysed at a laboratory in Cambridge during the next two years.

UK company Owlstone Medical  who are developing a breathalyser for applications in early disease detection and precision medicine, and Cancer Research UK, have announced the clinical launch of the PAN Cancer trial for Early Detection of Cancer in Breath, with the first patients now being recruited for the 1,500 patient study.

Researchers in the trial are using Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy platform to collect samples, including healthy individuals as trial controls, to analyse volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath.

The trial aims to identify VOCs that can be used as breath-based biomarkers to detect and differentiate different cancer types, thereby improving early detection.

This approach holds great promise as cancer cells display altered metabolism even at the very earliest stage of disease, affecting the pattern of the VOCs exhaled.

By identifying the changing pattern of VOCs early, the technology could detect cancer at the earliest stage of disease, when treatments are more effective and more lives can be saved.

The trial is recruiting 1,500 patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge who have been referred from their GP with these specific types of suspected cancer.

‘Could be used in GP practices in the future’

The clinical trial has initiated in patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers and will expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.

Research is anticipated to run through 2021, and if the technology proves to accurately identify cancer the team hope that Breath Biopsy could in the future be used routinely in GP practices to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: ‘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.

‘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.

Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.’

Whole body snapshot

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, said: ‘There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease.

‘The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need.’

‘Our technology has proven to be extremely effective at detecting VOCs in the breath, and we are proud to be working with Cancer Research UK as we look to apply it towards the incredibly important area of detecting early-stage disease in a range of cancers in patients.’

Recognising the importance of early detection in improving cancer survival, Cancer Research UK has made research into this area one of its top priorities and will invest more than £20 million a year in early detection research by 2019.

To find out more about Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy platform, visit:



2. While Owlstone will be funding the trial directly, none of this would be possible without the support and infrastructure provided by Cancer Research UK. The PAN Cancer trial is being conducted in collaboration with a team of leading cancer researchers at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The chief investigator is Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, who is co-lead of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre Early Detection Programme, Professor of Cancer Prevention at the MRC Cancer Unit, and an honorary consultant in gastroenterology and general medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge.


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