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New breath test for detecting breast cancer

October 7, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Every year, millions of U.S. women have mammograms to determine if they have breast cancer. While these tests range from frightening to painful, mammograms provide early detection. Now, a new breath test can "sniff out" breast cancer on-the-spot.The experimental test measures organic compounds expelled from the lungs and identifies the ones linked to breast cancer.

"The big difference is now you go in you get your breast crushed and they do a radiological test, what this does is you breathe into it and we measure just from the breath," said Dr. Charlene Bayer, senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute.

A pilot study shows the test was 77 percent accurate in distinguishing cancer. For mammograms, the success rate is 80 percent.

For women, this means potentially instant screening, as most mammograms last from 15 minutes to one hour.

"Very exciting to potentially put in a primary care physician's office as again a direct read system where a test could be done and the patient could be told right away, 'Yes it kind of looks like something's there, go get your mammogram earlier,'" said Dr. Sheryl Gabram, surgical oncologist at Emory University Winship Cancer Institute.

The breath test is still experimental, but the scientist behind it believes the test will be a reality in our lifetime.

Researchers say this test will likely never replace the mammogram. Still, it may allow earlier intervention and regular testing for high risk women, while offering breast cancer screening to women in third world countries.

ARM YOURSELF WITH KNOWLEDGE: Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissue of the breast. It is considered a heterogeneous disease - differing by individual, age group, and even the kinds of cells within the tumors themselves. Women in the United States get breast cancer more than any other type of cancer except for skin cancer. It is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women. Each year it is estimated that nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. More than 40,000 will die. Early detection is a key to survival. However, current diagnostic tests expose women to the potentially harmful effects of radiation - and often fail to detect cancer in the earliest stages. (Source: NationalBreastCancer.org)

DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH... LITERALLY: Doctors have known since the Middle Ages that the aroma of breath can be a clue to what's wrong with a patient (i.e. there is a sweet smell of acetone in patients with uncontrolled diabetes, the fishy odor associated with advanced liver disease, as well as a urine-like smell that comes when kidneys are failing). In recent studies to detect breast cancer, a patient is asked to breathe though a small steel tube for two minutes. An absorbent pad in the tube captures a breath sample in which the contents are then analyzed to see which chemicals are present. As a patient breathes into the device, these compounds are trapped and examined by a sensor. Specific patterns in the compounds are then found and used to confirm the presence or absence of the disease. Researchers say that subtle but distinctive changes in the content for individual diseases, including different cancers, give each disease its own "breath fingerprint." The breath test distinguished between women with breast cancer and healthy volunteers with a sensitivity of 94.1 percent. (SOURCE: DailyMail.co.uk)

WAITING TO EXHALE: Researchers are currently making additions to their clinical database of breath data. They are trying to determine which compounds are most important for detecting breast cancer. That could help reduce the number of compounds tested. Because it can offer immediate results right in a physician's office, it is expected that the device will help increase early detection among those who do not have the resources for a mammogram, more easily conduct interval testing for those with a genetically high risk for breast cancer, and facilitate recurrence testing after breast cancer treatment. For more information, contact Abby Vogel from Georgia Institute of Technology at avogel@gatech.edu.


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