Oesophagogastric cancers, like throat and stomach cancer are known for being difficult to diagnose in the early stages. They’re often caught too late, and as a result of this, are unable to be treated. For this reason, around 62% of cases are incurable by the time they have been diagnosed and the long term survival rate is currently just 15%.

However, a newly developed breath test could change the way these types of cancers are identified and therefore speed up diagnosis and, in the longer term, survival rates. In trials of the method, the researchers were able to correctly diagnose around 85% of oesophagogastric cancers in patients using their breath samples.

What’s wrong with the current diagnostic technique?

The current method of diagnosis oesophagogastric cancer is by an endoscopy. Although this is effective in patients with more advanced cancer, when detecting it in its earlier stages, the results aren’t always accurate. Because of this, patients with these types of cancers are often diagnosed late which is leading to low long term survival rates for patients.

The study noted: “A breath test prior to endoscopy could substantially reduce the number of negative endoscopies and increase the cancer yield making the diagnostic pathway more effective with improved patient experience. Avoiding unnecessary investigations would also free up resources in the NHS. Our breath test could be used as a first-line test before invasive investigations,” added professor Hanna. Early detection of cancer gives patients more treatment options and save more lives.”

How does the new method work?

The method works by examining the chemical markers of types of cancers as they pass through the patients airways and are exhaled. In oesophagogastric cancers, the volatile organic compounds are distinctive, and by analysing samples, the scientists found they were able to identify cancers from the components.

According to Professor George Hanna, lead author of the study: “Alarming symptoms often indicate late cancer stage. There is a real need for early detection of cancer when symptoms are non-specific and shared by benign diseases. Our breath test could be used as a first-line test before invasive investigations.”

The authors of the study also noted that larger trials of the technique would need to be carried out in order to assess the accuracy and effectiveness before it could be rolled out to patients. If successful, it’s hoped that it could then be extended to diagnose other types of cancer.

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