A New Breath Test Is Being Developed to Diagnose Esophageal Cancer

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Researchers from the UK have developed a new test for oesophageal cancer. The full article can be found here, at ABC News.

Oesophageal cancer is a form of cancer estimated to affect approximately 50,000 people living in the United States. It is more common in men than women, and people aged over 60. It affects the oesophagus, which is a tube connecting the throat and stomach. People with the disease may develop symptoms including swallowing difficulties, heartburn, weight loss, and pain in the chest, back, or upper stomach. If the cancer is caught at an early stage it is easier to treat, however, oesophageal cancer often presents few symptoms and so may remain undiagnosed for a long period. Developing better ways to test for the cancer is key to its early diagnosis and improved outcomes.

At the moment, the main method of identifying oesophageal cancer is an upper endoscopy, in which a thin and flexible endoscope allows doctors to look inside a patient for tumours. However, this test is expensive (often costing several thousand dollars), and often unreliable.

The researchers behind the recent study, published in JAMA Oncology, developed a breath test that could be used to diagnose oesophageal cancer in a less invasive and much cheaper way. The breath test works by checking patients’ breath for several compounds, known as volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to oesophageal and gastric cancers. These are butyric, hexanoic, and pentanoic acids as well as butanal and decanal.

The breath test was used on the exhaled breath that was taken from 335 participants, 172 of who had oesophageal or gastric cancer. The results showed that the breath test correctly identified the cancers approximately 80% of the time.

Although this diagnostic tool is still experimental, these results demonstrate its promise as a cheap, reasonably effective, and non-invasive method of diagnosing certain cancers. The authors write that the next step will be to “establish the diagnostic accuracy of the test among the intended population in primary care where the test will be applied.”


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