Electronic Nose May Sniff Out Lung Cancer

Detecting lung cancer soon may be as easy as taking a breath.

A new study shows that an experimental "electronic nose" can detect lung cancer in the exhaled breath of people with the disease.

Read WebMD's "Link 3: New Methods for Targeting Cancer"

Researchers say the device detects unique "smellprints" found in the exhaled breath of people with lung cancer and may one day be used to conduct widespread screening for the deadly disease.

Lung cancer is the top cancer killer for both men and women in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined.

Early detection and treatment is critical to preventing or delaying death due to the disease. However, there are no general screening guidelines to detect lung cancer at its earliest stages in asymptomatic people. When lung cancer is found early, it is often because of tests that were being done for something else.

Read WebMD's "Annual Lung Cancer Screening May Cut Deaths"

New Way to Detect Lung Cancer

"Based on prior work, we hypothesized that an 'electronic nose' would detect lung cancer on the basis of complex 'smellprints' of numerous volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath from individuals with lung cancer," says researcher Serpil C. Erzurum, MD, of The Cleveland Clinic, in a news release.

"Like the human nose, its electronic counterpart responds in concert to a given odor to generate a pattern or 'smellprint,' which is analyzed, compared with stored patterns and recognized," says Erzurum.

In the study, which appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Respiratory Care Medicine, researchers measured the exhaled breath of 14 people with lung cancer and 45 healthy individuals to develop the electronic nose's screening capability.

Then they tested the device's ability to detect lung cancer in another group of 14 people with lung cancer and 62 people without the disease.

Of the 14 lung cancer patients, 10 had a positive breath test and four had a negative result. Among the noncancer patients, 57 had a negative lung cancer breath test and five had a positive.

Researchers say that in this group of people with a rate of lung cancer of 18 percent, the test was 92 percent accurate in confirming those people that did not have lung cancer and 66 percent accurate in detecting those with lung cancer.

They say these results prove the feasibility of such an "electronic nose" test for lung cancer, but further research is needed to refine and develop effective strategies for using such a test.

Visit WebMD's Lung Cancer Health Center

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Machado, R. American Journal of Respiratory Care Medicine, June 2005; vol 171: pp 1288-1291. News release, American Thoracic Society.