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Breath of hope for easier cancer tests; Researchers breathe new life into old technique for detecting illness.

Byline: Robin Turner

A BREATH test for diagnosing cancer and other diseases is being developed by researchers at a Welsh university.

The system works by analysing all the component chemicals and compounds that make up a patient's breath.

Swansea University scientists hope their revolutionary breath test will be able to detect cancers early, eliminating the need for invasive surgery.

Doctors have known since the Middle Ages the aroma of breath can hold a clue to what's wrong with a patient. For example, there is often a sweet smell of "pears" in patients with uncontrolled diabetes, a fishy odour to advanced liver disease, as well as a urine-like smell that comes in the breath when kidneys are failing.

Scientists have long suspected there are other, less obvious clues to disease in the breath, but until now have lacked the knowledge and equipment to use them.

Although there are reckoned to be more than 400 different breath chemicals that could be used, most are present in such small amounts - one part in a trillion in some cases - they have been difficult to pick up.

Now scientists at the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating at Swansea University's School of Engineering are using sophisticated techniques to pick up the chemicals and analyse them.

The complex methods include gas chromatography (electronic recognition of particles suspended in a gas stream), mass spectrometry (identifying individual particles by their different atomic weights) and thermal desorption (using heat to separate particles from other compounds). The three methods can identify volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breath.

Swansea University's Dr Masood Yousef said, "Studies have shown high concentrations of certain VOCs in breath can correlate with disease.

"There are also certain compounds that seem to mark out particular types of cancer.

"If unique markers for specific diseases can be recognised earlier than traditional techniques, then there is immense potential to revolutionise early disease diagnosis before any symptoms have developed, and without the need for invasive procedures." Diagnostic techniques based on exhaled breath are much less developed than traditional blood or urine analysis techniques, and up to now have not been widely used. But Dr Yousef believes the new breath test will provide a more convenient and rapid method for diagnosing serious diseases.

He said, "Breath samples are much easier to collect than blood and urine, for the patient as much as for the person collecting the sample. They can be collected anywhere by people with no medical training, and there are no associated biohazard risks.

"Overall, the procedure is likely to be much more cost effective than conventional methods, potentially saving the NHS a great deal of time and money."

It is hoped the research will lead to simple diagnostic tools such as test strips that give positive results for specific illnesses, drastically cutting the cost and level of expertise for diagnoses.

Dr Timothy Claypole, director of the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating, said, "The work we are doing now could well lead to the use of breath tests in routine medical examinations, long before patients show any physical symptoms.

Ultimately, this technology will save lives."

The research has been funded by a grant from the Welsh Assembly Government Knowledge Exploitation Fund.


STRIKING A BLOW Dr Masood Yousef carries out sampling as part of research into disease detection at Swansea University
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 12, 2008
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