An ultra-sensitive ‘breathalyser’ that can test for the tell-tale chemicals in the breath that indicate lung cancer could enable doctors to detect the disease at its earliest stages

The tiny sensor on a silicon chip provides real potential for the first time for routine screening and vastly improved rates of early diagnosis, according to researchers at Owlstone Nanotech, a company spun out of research they carried out as PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Clinical testing of the device will take place in 2015, and the team hopes to have a product ready for use in 2017.

Around 44,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK each year, and early diagnosis is crucial to long-term survival. If caught at stage I, when the tumour is small and has not spread, 75 out of 100 people will be successfully treated and survive over five years. However if the disease is diagnosed at stage IV, when it has grown and spread, only five out of 100 people will survive. Currently lung cancer is detected in stage I in only 14.5% of patients, and over 35,000 people die of the disease each year. A recent Cancer Research UK report found that 46% of cancers in England are only diagnosed at an advanced stage*.

Exhaled breath contains chemicals that are the result of metabolic processes in their body, and a number of studies have shown that people with lung cancer have distinct chemicals in their breath, including limonene, isoprene and 2-butanone. However detecting these chemicals in order to make an early diagnosis is challenging, and currently requires large, expensive chemical analysers known as gas chromatography mass spectrometry found only in specialist labs.

Now, using nanofabrication techniques, the team at Owlstone has developed a chemical detection system on a chip to create a breath sampler that is 100 times cheaper and 1,000 times smaller, making it far more accessible to hospitals and GP surgeries.

Billy Boyle, co-founder and President of Owlstone, says:

“Every time we breathe out there are hundreds of chemicals in our breath, and some of those are tell-tale markers of disease. We know that the chemical markers of lung cancer are there even at the earliest stages, which gives us an immense opportunity to detect it early and save lives. Unfortunately the big, costly lab-based machines used to identify these chemicals are not a solution for the hospital, let alone the doctor’s office, so developing a small, cost-effective and easy to use product is potentially revolutionary for people’s long-term prospects.”

Dr Eliot Forster, Executive Chair of MedCity, launched by Mayor of London Boris Johnson in April this year to promote life sciences enterprise and investment in the London-Oxford-Cambridge golden triangle, says:

“The UK is a hotbed of exciting and potentially transformative research, and it’s critically important that we get that out of the lab and into the healthcare sector where it can benefit the people who need it. This is a great technology from a company spun-out of one of our leading universities by people who spotted a need and came up with an imaginative, smart solution. It’s entrepreneurs like Billy who are delivering better healthcare and boosting the economy, and we need to make sure they are getting every support to get their ideas from concept to product.”

The team has now completed phase I trials under the NHS Small Business Research Initiative, which demonstrated that the new device is able to detect 12 chemicals that are a marker of lung cancer at concentrations well below those that would be present in the breath of people with early stage lung cancer. The device will now be trialled in lung cancer clinics in Cambridge and Leicester in 2015.

Owlstone was created in 2004 by a group of PhD students at Cambridge carrying out research on sensors and superconductors. Their original focus was on developing better sensors for detecting chemical and explosive threats, which has produced a range of products to detect explosives and chemical warfare agents and has won them contracts worth over $10m from the United States Department of Defense, and defence companies including Selecx Galileo.

However, realising that their technology could be re-programmed to detect different chemicals, the team has expanded its focus to develop medical applications over the past two years.

Trials for this device have been funded by Innovate UK under its Small Business Research Initiative, which connects public sector challenges with innovative ideas from industry.

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Read more from the Daily Telegraph here.


*Saving lives, averting costs – An analysis of the financial implications of achieving earlier diagnosis of colorectal, lung and ovarian cancer

Cancer Research UK, September 2014