Breath test to diagnose early-stage head and neck cancer

medical equipment for diagnosis
The possibility of an early diagnosis could change clinical practice. Source: Pkd2016 (via Wikimedia Commons)
A new study by Flinders University Scientists introduce a new way of diagnosing head and neck cancers using a breath test.

By Jessica Dickens| Contributor

Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is the 7th most common cancer globally with 600,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It develops from the squamous cells in the mucus membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. HNSCC is not typically an inherited disease. It is also known that tobacco use and alcohol consumption are significant risk factors. Recently, an increasing incidence of human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated HNSCC has emerged within the younger population.

Currently, symptom based NHSCC detection methods are used to diagnose patients. Often when detectable symptoms occur the stage of HNSCC has already advanced, therefore a detection method that provides accurate, early-stage testing for head and neck cancer would be highly valued.

However, Flinders University scientists may have found a solution to this problem through the development of a promising, non-invasive and accurate breath test that analyses breath profiles to determine patients with and without head and neck cancer. The findings published in the British Journal of Cancer outlines a new method of diagnosis is a rapid and inexpensive early-stage test for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) and could be developed as a diagnostic method for other diseases.

The Australian study used a selected ion flow-tube mass spectrometer to analyse breaths of 181 patients with suspected early-stage HNSCC before any treatment. This measured the volatile organic compounds of the patient’s breath profiles, as these provide biomarkers of cancer detection. Using statistical modelling of the breath profiles, the researchers were able to differentiate between cancer and control (benign disease) patients, with an average sensitivity and specificity of 80% and 86% respectively.

Studying tissue types in this research enabled diagnosis. Future prospects of these findings are in clinical settings. This was explained by the co-lead author Dr Nuwan Dharmawardana,

“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”.

As current diagnosis methods need to be carried out in specialist clinics, a breath test could potentially alleviate pressure from these healthcare resources.

This method of diagnosis could improve the ability to identify early-stage HNSCC, provide better prognosis and reduce patient morbidity. A significant success of this study is to make progress in developing the use of mass spectrometry technology to analyse a patient’s breath as a ground breaking, quick and non-invasive technique in diagnosis of cancer. This study may pave the way for future clinical practice in cancer diagnosis, which with further research can improve patient outcomes. 

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