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Could a Breathalyzer Detect Breast Cancer?

Well, not quite, but something kind of like a Breathalyzer may soon do the trick if local scientists have anything to say about it.

With all the recent talk about health care and cutting health care costs, sometimes the actual medical breakthroughs that allow healthcare to become less costly and more efficient are left by the wayside. That’s what I was glad to read recently that researchers right here in Georgia are working on a technology that would allow for more frequent and less expensive breast cancer checks by testing, of all things, the breath.

A few years ago I read that some dogs were being trained to detect bladder cancer by smelling human breath, and now researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Emory Winship Cancer Institute have combined those findings with a European breath test to ascertain occupation exposure to contaminants. The result? Breast cancer can be detected on the breath, and perhaps one day a breathalyzer type device will assist doctors with diagnosis.

The pilot study tested 40 women, 20 diagnose with breast cancer and 20 not suffering from the disease. In 80% of cases, the women with breast cancer tested positive through breath analysis. In 70 to 80% of cases, the women without breast cancer tested negative through breath analysis.

“The technology of breath analysis has been around for decades, but the opportunity to develop a small hand-held collection/interpretation device available in physicians’ offices is why we are continuing to move forward with this research for breast and potentially other cancer detection,” said Dr. Sheryl Gabram-Mendola, deputy director of the Georgia Cancer Center for Excellence at Grady Memorial Hospital and a researcher involved in the project.

The test uses a device similar to the Breathalyzer that police use to test for DUI. It collects air from deep in the lungs, where it is least contaminated, and then analyzes the patterns of 383 different compounds.

The biggest draw of the device is its portability and relative ease of use. If the device were to become standard issue in doctor’s offices, doctors could test high risk women more frequently without subjecting them to the rigors of a mammogram. They could also use it to monitor for recurrence in breast cancer survivors. Further, Dr. Gabram-Mendola estimates that by the year 2020, 70% of all breast cancer cases will be diagnosed outside the U.S. The breath analyzer could be a vital tool in cancer detection for areas of the world that do not have access to bulky mammography equipment.

The researchers plan to study a larger sample next, with the ultimate goal being to develop a portable breath analysis device for use in doctor’s offices.