Scientists reveal that an ‘electronic nose’ can distinguish between molecules found in the breath of head-and-neck cancer patients and those of healthy people, according to the results of a small, initial study published in the British Journal of Cancer, today.

Researchers from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology collected breath samples from 82 people from three groups: head-and-neck cancer patients, lung cancer patients and healthy people. The team examined the differences in the molecules present in the exhaled breath of each group using tailor-made detection equipment called the Nano Artificial NOSE, (NA-NOSE).

Head-and-neck cancer is often diagnosed late, because it lacks specific symptoms and patients often develop a second primary tumour that can affect the entire respiratory system, including the lungs.

The team examined the potential for a future test to be developed to diagnose head-and-neck cancer and distinguish it from lung cancer.

They found the NA-NOSE was able to distinguish between molecules found in the exhaled breath of head-and-neck cancer patients and healthy volunteers. It also distinguished between lung cancer patients and healthy controls, and between head-and-neck and lung cancer groups.

Each year in the UK around 8,700 people are diagnosed with head-and-neck cancer. This includes a range of different tumour types occurring in the tissues or organs in the head and neck, for example salivary glands and mucus membranes.

Lead researcher, Professor Hossam Haick, at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, said: “There’s an urgent need to develop new ways to detect head-and-neck cancer because diagnosis of the disease is complicated, requiring specialist examinations.

“We’ve shown that a simple ‘breath test’ can spot the patterns of molecules which are found in head-and-neck patients in a small, early study.

“We now need to test these results in larger studies to find if this could lead to a potential screening method for the disease.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “Cancer Research UK is leading initiatives to improve early diagnosis of cancer; it’s incredibly important to spot the disease as soon as possible when it is easier to treat successfully.

“These interesting initial results show promise for the development of a breath test to detect head-and-neck cancers which are often diagnosed at an advanced stage.

“But it’s important to be clear that this is a small study, at a very early stage, so many more years of research with patients will be needed to see if a breath test could be used in the clinic.”

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Hakim et al. Diagnosis of head-and-neck cancer from exhaled breath. BJC.


Head-and-neck cancers include:
Eye cancer
Nasal and paranasal sinus cancer (cancers in the nasal cavity and in the sinuses around the nose).
Nasopharyngeal cancer (the area that connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth).
Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the tongue, the gums, cheeks, lip and floor and roof of the mouth).
Larynx or laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box).
Oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe or gullet).

Hakim et al. Diagnosis of head-and-neck cancer from exhaled breath. BJC

The research was lead by Professor Hossam Haick at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Russell Berrie Nonotechnology Institute, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. The research was funded by the Marie Curie Excellence Grant of the European Commission’s FP6 program.

The test group included 82 volunteers: 22 head-and-neck patients, 24 lung cancer patients and 36 healthy patients aged 29-78.

The annual incidence rate of head and neck cancer in the UK is 12.2 per 100,000 population.