Sniffing out cancer is as easy as breathing

A team of EU-funded researchers has developed an accurate and non-invasive way to detect cancer through a person's breath. The hand-held sensor can be used by anyone without medical supervision in combination with their smart phone. Tests reveal the accuracy of the sensor is about 93%.

Early detection and regular screening for cancer can save many lives. However, such services have traditionally required booking hospital appointments and tests, sometimes weeks in advance. In most cases, delays in diagnosis and treatment mean the disease becomes harder to treat.

To address these issues, the EU-funded SNIFFPHONE project has developed an innovative system that can detect gastric cancers. The project team has built and refined a prototype hand-held device through which a person’s breath is captured by an array of highly sensitive chemical sensors made from nanomaterials.

The results are recorded, stored and pre-processed by the breath analyser, which is connected via Bluetooth to a user’s smart phone. This allows the information to be transferred wirelessly via an internet connection to a remote external server.

Using statistical pattern recognition, the data is interpreted to create a clinical report which includes the screening results and personal information such as a patient’s age and weight. This file is then sent to the attending doctor who can advise on the next course of action for the patient.

A pivotal change
A mobile phone app provides instructions on how to use the breath analyser and instantly delivers the results back to the user. Meanwhile, healthcare professionals can use the project’s web application to search and select patients, view results over time, and check the status of the disease.

‘The most essential breakthrough is the ability of our device to discriminate cancer patients from healthy volunteers with an accuracy of about 93 %,’ explains project scientific director Dr Gidi Shani from Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology.

Project team leader Prof. Hossam Haick adds: ‘The value of early detection cannot be over-estimated in the fight against cancer – and if we can make check-ups inexpensive, effortless and comfortable we can increase their public uptake and so instigate a pivotal change in the toll cancer takes on humanity.’

As well as pre-screening, the project’s breath analyser could be used as a diagnostic tool for ongoing treatment. Patients can provide any number of samples during the day, wherever they are, cutting down on the need to visit the hospital or doctor’s surgery. The amount of data generated through regular tests can be automatically processed and analysed to provide an attending physician with a comprehensive surveillance report.

New project and trials
The project consortium brought together research and development teams, clinicians, four European SMEs and a large industrial company from six countries. Although SNIFFPHONE finished in February 2019, the work continues through another EU-supported project called VOGAS.

‘Through VOGAS, we will make further assessments of our prototype and additional modifications,’ adds Haick. ‘We will also examine how the effectiveness of the technology varies when trials are performed in different parts of the world.’

VOGAS also gives the project team an opportunity to explore the commercial potential of their technology. This will be achieved through the large clinical trials scheduled to take place in Latvia, Ukraine, Brazil, Chile and Columbia.

The SNIFFPHONE consortium was awarded the 2018 Innovation Award by the European Commission for most innovative project.