The following abstract from an Ehman et al. (2011) describes promising research that sniffing out volatile organic compounds (VOC) in human breath can be a tool for early cancer detection. Scientists are training dogs to do just that, breath analyses to detect metabolic disorders, amongst them cancer (Seyfried & Shelton, 2010).
I found a paper by an Austro-Polish research team as an excellent starting point in the realm of breath analyses to serve as a biomarker for disease. The paper is titled “Human exhaled air analytics: biomarkers of disease.” In it Buszewski, Kęsy, Ligor, & Amann (2007) elaborate on the chemistry of VOCs, first discovered by Linus Pauling in the ‘70s.
Looking to human breath to detect disease is nothing new and dates back to the very early history of medicine. A perfect example is the smell of acetone in uncontrolled diabetes (Buszewski et al., 2007).
Back to cancer and breath analyses. Here is the abstract from Ehman et al. (2011).
Patient prognosis in lung cancer (LC) largely depends on early diagnosis. Exhaled breath of patients may represent the ideal specimen for future LC screening. However, the clinical applicability of current diagnostic sensor technologies based on signal pattern analysis remains incalculable due to their inability to identify a clear target. To test the robustness of the presence of a so far unknown volatile organic compound in the breath of patients with LC, sniffer dogs were applied.
Exhalation samples of 220 volunteers (healthy individuals, confirmed LC, or COPD) were presented to sniffer dogs following a rigid scientific protocol. Patient history, drug administration and clinicopathological data were analysed to identify potential bias or confounders.
LC was identified with an overall sensitivity of 71% and a specificity of 93%. LC detection was independent from COPD and the presence of tobacco smoke and food odors. Logistic regression identified two drugs as potential confounders.
It must be assumed, that a robust and specific volatile organic compound (or pattern) is present in the breath of patients with LC. Additional research efforts are required to overcome the current technical limitations of electronic sensor technologies to engineer a clinically applicable screening tool.
This research establishes further that certain cancers have an “aromatic fingerprint” (i.e. a specific makeup of VOCs associated with them) that could be used in early detection of the disease. Scientists have used “cancer sniffing dog’s” in the following tumors…
In Sweden, researchers concluded that most common ovarian carcinomas are characterized by an aromatic fingerprint, which can be detected by “man’s best friend” (Horvath, Jarverud, Jarverud, & Horvath, 2008).
Japanese researchers just recently discovered that dogs could detect bowel cancer with 95% accuracy from breath tests, and 98% accuracy from stool samples when compared with conventional colonoscopy (Sonoda et al., 2011).
And five years ago, in 2006, McCulloch, Jezierski, Broffman, Hubbard, Turner and Janecki established that dogs were able to detect breast cancer with a sensitivity of 0.88 (95% CI, 0.75, 1.00) and a specificity of 0.98 (95% CI, 0.90, 0.99).
It looks like canine breath analyses and the detection and identification of VOCs associated with cancer is going to be a hotly contested field.
Scientists are making great strides towards early detection of cancer, but we still need to identify the VOCs that give each cancer an “aromatic fingerprint.
If Fido only could teach us about the biochemistry of the scent of cancer (Ehman et al., 2011).
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Buszewski, B., Kęsy, M., Ligor, T., & Amann, A. (2007). Human exhaled air analytics: biomarkers of diseases. Biomedical Chromatography, 21(6), 553-566. doi:10.1002/bmc.835
Ehman, R., Boedeker, E., Friedrich, U., Sagert, J., Dippon, J., Friedel, G., & Walles, T. (2011). Canine scent detection in the diagnosis of lung cancer: Revisiting a puzzling phenomenon. European Respiratory Journal. doi:10.1183/09031936.00051711
Horvath, G., Jarverud, G. a K., Jarverud, S., & Horvath, I. (2008). Human Ovarian Carcinomas Detected by Specific Odor. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 7(2), 76-80. doi:10.1177/1534735408319058
McCulloch, M. (2006). Diagnostic Accuracy of Canine Scent Detection in Early- and Late-Stage Lung and Breast Cancers. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 5(1), 30-39. doi:10.1177/1534735405285096
Seyfried, T. N., & Shelton, L. M. (2010). Cancer as a metabolic disease. Nutrition & Metabolism, 7(1), 7. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-7
Sonoda, H., Kohnoe, S., Yamazato, T., Satoh, Y., Morizono, G., Shikata, K., Morita, M., et al. (2011). Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection. Gut, 60(6), 814-819. doi:10.1136/gut.2010.218305