Researchers have launched a clinical trial to develop a breath test, analysing molecules that could indicate the presence of cancer at an early stage.

This is the first test of its kind to investigate multiple cancer types.

A cancer breath test has huge potential to provide a non-invasive look into what’s happening in the body and could help to find cancer early when treatment is more likely to be effective.  

The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre is running the PAN Cancer trial for Early Detection of Cancer in Breath in collaboration with Owlstone Medical to test their Breath Biopsy technology.

Breath samples from people will be collected in the clinical trial to see if odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be detected.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: “We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease.

“Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier – it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology. Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy® technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.”

When cells carry out biochemical reactions as part of their metabolism they produce a range of VOCs. If their metabolism becomes altered, such as in cancer and various other conditions, cells can release a different pattern of VOCs. The researchers aim to identify these patterns using Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology.

The researchers in the trial will collect samples from 1,500 people, including healthy people as trial controls, to analyse VOCs in the breath to see if they can detect signals of different cancer types. The clinical trial will start with patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers and then expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.

The trial is recruiting patients to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge who have been referred from their GP with these specific types of suspected cancer. They will be given the breath test prior to other diagnostic tests. Patients will breathe into the test for 10 minutes to collect a sample, which will then be processed in Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy laboratory in Cambridge, UK.

By looking across cancer types, this trial will help unpick if cancer signals are similar or different, and how early it’s possible to pick these signals up. Some people will go on to be diagnosed with cancer, and their samples will be compared to those who don’t develop the disease.

If the technology proves to accurately identify cancer, the team hope that breath biopsies could in future be used in GP practices to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.  

Almost half of cancers are diagnosed at a late stage in England. This highlights the importance of early detection, particularly for diseases like oesophageal cancer where only 12% of oesophageal cancer patients survive their disease for 10 years or more.

Dr David Crosby, head of early detection research at Cancer Research UK, said: “Technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionise the way we detect and diagnose cancer in the future.

“Early detection research has faced an historic lack of funding and industry interest, and this work is a shining example of Cancer Research UK’s commitment to reverse that trend and drive vital progress in shifting cancer diagnosis towards earlier stages.”