A breath test may now help detect oesophagogastric cancer

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Recently published in JAMA Oncology, researchers claim that a breath test may be a viable solution to detect cancers in the oesophagus and stomach.

The United Kingdom (UK) states that one in every three patients presents to the hospital with complaints of gastrointestinal discomfort. Statistics report that in 2016, the UK saw 7044 cases of gastrointestinal disease with 38% of these patients capable of being treated with a curative management plan.

The current tell-tale symptoms for gastrointestinal disorders are the inability to swallow and painful swallowing. These symptoms occur only when the tumour has grown big enough to prevent easy swallowing and therefore by the time doctors are able to diagnose the tumour, it has already progressed to an advanced stage. This inability to recognise oesophageal gastric tumours early on in the development of the disease caused the researchers to discover other methods to detect the presence of gastrointestinal cancer.

Researcher Sheraz Markar and team evaluated whether the breath test would be a good alternative to detecting oesophagogastric tumours. They recently published their results in JAMA Oncology.

They had two teams present in this study. The first team was the research team who were aware of the diagnosis of the patients. The second team was a clinical team unaware of the diagnosis of the patients.

Breath test detects evaporated compounds emitted from the body due to cancer

The breath test is a test to detect volatile organic compounds that are emitted from the body due to diseases such as cancer. The researchers analysed the samples of the breath test to detect these volatile organic compounds by a selected ion flow tube mass spectrometry. The different types of volatile organic compounds that can be detected are butyric acid, pentanoic acid, hexanoic acid, butanal, and decanal. They then confirmed or denied the results of this experiment by an accurate histopathological diagnosis of the tumour cells.

They performed this in mainly three hospitals around London to get maximum validity. The samples collected were sent to a common laboratory for testing. They figured that for this experiment they would have to recruit 325 patients in total. Out of that total, 162 patients would be patients with diagnosed oesophageal or gastric cancer and the remaining 163 patients should be diagnosed with wither benign conditions or have a normal upper gastrointestinal tract. They obtained consent from all the patients involved.

Breath test may be a good solution for detecting oesophagogastric tumours

The results of the experiment demonstrated that the breath test was a good solution for detecting the presence of oesophageal gastric tumours, showing a sensitivity of 80% and a specificity of 81%. This positive result has been a great step towards the early recognition of cancer, making it easy for general primary care physicians to detect cancer early on. Although more research is needed to test the accuracy of the test, experiments such as these pave a step in the right direction for early detection and prevention of harmful conditions such as cancer.

Written by Dr. Apollina Sharma, MBBS, GradDip EXMD

Reference: Markar, S. R., Wiggins, T., Antonowicz, S., Chin, S. T., Romano, A., Nikolic, K., … & Hanna, G. B. Assessment of a Noninvasive Exhaled Breath Test for the Diagnosis of Oesophagogastric Cancer. JAMA Oncology.

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