The Smell Test: Sniffing Out Cancer

A machine detects lung cancer from a person’s breath

Dog nose

With their amazing sense of smell, some dogs can sniff out disease in a person’s breath. Researchers at Cleveland Clinic are working with a machine that does the same — minus the sloppy dog kisses.

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Peter Mazzone, MD, MPH, a physician and researcher in the Cleveland Clinic Respiratory Institute, and his team use a machine that can detect lung cancer’s distinctive chemical signature in a person’s breath. The goal: to catch the disease as early as possible, before it causes irreparable damage. Today, fewer than 15 percent of patients survive the disease, often because it is found too late.

How it works

The process is simple. Patients breathe into a mouthpiece that leads to a sensor produced by the company Metabolomx. The sensor changes colors in response to the chemicals in a person’s breath. Researchers can use those color changes to search for patterns that are distinctive to cancer.

“Our cells use energy, just like a car burns fuel,” Dr. Mazzone says, “Just as you get exhaust from a car’s engine, cells produce exhaust from their chemical processes.”

Much of that exhaust comes out in the lungs. When testing a person’s breath, Dr. Mazzone searches for signs of cancer cells at work. Cancer cells have a different metabolism, or energy-burning process, than regular cells, so the exhaust they produce should be different, too. On top of that, different types of lung cancer produce different results.

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Encouraging results

Back when Dr. Mazzone and his team first tested a sensor in 2007, they were able to detect cancer with an accuracy of about 73 percent. Fast forward to late 2011 and early 2012, and the accuracy had jumped up to 80–85 percent.

The results, published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, were improved in part because researchers have fine-tuned their method, Dr. Mazzone says. For the 229 patients they tested, they included some very specific information: type of cancer, history of smoking and family history of cancer, for example.

Now the team gathering data and volunteers for an even larger study using an even more sensitive sensor. Dr. Mazzone hopes the results will become more and more accurate over time — to the point where such a device would be fit for use by doctors around the world.

The advantages are straightforward: inexpensive equipment, getting results in real time instead of sending tests off to a lab and waiting, no more painful needle biopsies, and improved safety over existing tests. Most of all, an accurate smell test would make a difference in how doctors find and treat cancer.

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“If we could detect lung cancer at an earlier stage,” Dr. Mazzone says, “we could save lives.”

More information

CBS News Video: New Breath Test Can Diagnose Disease

Time magazine story: Smell Test: Using Breath to Sniff Out Cancer, Infections and More

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