Israeli scientists have devised a portable breath tester that detects lung cancer with an accuracy rate of 86%. Reported in the journal ‘Nature Nanotechnology’, the device could even act as an early warning system to flag disease before tumours are visible in x-rays.

Using gold nano particles, the sensor detects levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) measured in a few parts per billion. This increases in cancer patients. With lung cancer, early detection increases the odds of survival, though only 15% of cases are discovered before it begins to spread. Chest x-rays and CT scans can be used to detect cancer and reduce the lung cancer mortality rate, however, it is expensive and also exposes patients to harmful radiation.

The study, lead by Hossam Haick of the Israel Institute of technology sampled breath from 56 healthy people and 40 lung cancer patients. The findings included that 33 compounds that appeared in at least 83% of the cancer group, but in lesser than 83% of the control group. Once the arrays were ‘trained’ to detect a selection of cancer-specific VOCs, it was tested on both artificial mixtures or biomarkers and real human breath. The researchers concluded that they were able to, “distinguish between the breath of lung cancer patients and healthy controls, without the need for de-humidification or pre-concentration of the lung cancer biomarkers.” The scientists also indicated that this technique could be extended to other forms of cancer.

WHO statistics report that lung cancer claims around 1.3 million lives worldwide annually, accounting for nearly 18 percent of all cancer-related deaths.