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ADELAIDE, Australia — From drunk driving to experimental screenings for COVID-19, a breath test can provide a lot of information in a short amount of time. Researchers in Australia say your breath may also be able to act as an early warning system for cancer. Their new test is helping to detect certain forms of the disease without the need for invasive medical exams.

The team from Flinders University reports making a significant breakthrough in using exhaled particles to accurately tell who does or does not have head and neck cancer. Globally, these cancers of the mouth, sinuses, nose, and throat make up six percent of all cancer diagnoses. This form of the disease kills more than 300,000 patients each year. People who use tobacco, alcohol, or practice poor oral hygiene are the most at risk for getting sick.

The study examined 181 patients believed to have early-stage head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Researchers collected breath samples to see if their new test could spot specific differences in cancer patients without the need for a biopsy.

“We sought to determine the diagnostic accuracy of breath analysis as a non-invasive test for detecting head and neck cancer, which in time may result in a simple method to improve treatment outcomes and patient morbidity,” says lead researchers Dr. Roger Yazbek and Associate Professor Eng Ooi in a media release.

How accurate is the cancer breath test?

Researchers use an ion flow-tube mass spectrometer to check for volatile organic compounds in each patient’s sample. The results show the cancer breath test can correctly distinguish between cancer compounds and healthy control patients with an average sensitivity and specificity rating of 85 percent.

These diagnoses were also confirmed using a standard tissue biopsy. The Australian team adds breath analysis is a fast and inexpensive way to get more early diagnoses for cancer. It may also get people into treatment sooner.

The study notes that there has been a surge of head and neck cancers among younger people which are linked to complications from the human papilloma virus (HPV). Current treatments are very effective during the early stage of the disease. Finding head and neck cancer in its later stages is common however, and these cases have much poorer survival rates.

“With these strong results, we hope to trial the method in primary care settings, such as GP clinics, to further develop its use in early-stage screening for HNSCC in the community,” says co-lead author Dr. Nuwan Dharmawardana.

The study appears in the British Journal of Cancer.

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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