Nanotech Breathalyzer Detects Telltale Signs of Lung Cancer

By Eliza Strickland | August 31, 2009 1:27 pm

cancer breathalyzerIn a doctor’s office in the near future, part of a smoker’s routine checkup could involve blowing into a tube connected to a small sensor. The doctor will look at the sensor’s display and know immediately whether she has to deliver the grim diagnosis: lung cancer. Researchers in Israel have invented a new “breathalyzer” that can detect chemical compounds produced by lung cancer cells. The finished device should be portable and inexpensive and provide a faster, easier, and more sensitive way to screen for tumours than X-rays or blood tests. Such screening should help doctors detect cancer early, when it’s most treatable [Telegraph].

The new device, described in Nature Nanotechnology, is not the first to find evidence of cancer on a person’s breath. Other attempts to do this have yielded promising results, … but those devices require a higher concentration of the telltale biomarker chemicals than the Israeli device. The chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are metabolic products present in the vapors that we breathe out, but they occur in such small amounts that researchers have had to find ways to increase their concentrations before testing [Technology Review]. But the new sensor has such sensitivity that it can detect traces of the compound in their natural concentrations in human breath, and it can therefore give results immediately, without processing and analyzing the sample in a lab.

The sensor relies on a film of gold nanoparticles, which conducts electricity, layered over a carbon-based substrate. When a patient breathes into the device, particulates in the breath accumulate on the carbon layer and the sensor swells pushing the gold nanoparticles further apart, which, in turn, alters the resistance of the film. Each type of particulate has a unique effect on the resistance which can be measured by having a current flow through the sensor. “The user gets a figure on the device’s display panel that indicates whether the person is healthy or has cancer” [Physics World], says lead researcher Hossam Haick.

Lung cancer kills 1.3 million people a year and is the leading cause of cancer death across the world. Only 15 percent of patients live more than 5 years, in part because the disease is usually diagnosed so late [Reuters]. The new sensor was able to clearly differentiate between healthy people and patients with stage-3 or stage-4 lung cancer, meaning that the disease had already progressed significantly. The researchers note that the sensor would be of even greater medical value if it can pick out people in the earlier stages of the disease.

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DISCOVER: Lassie–Get the Oncologist!

Image: Nature Nanotechnology

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
MORE ABOUT: cancer, nanotechnology
  • robot makes music

    This is a pretty hot invention, but I think you made a factual error in the first like of the article, to wit: “part of a smoker’s routine checkup.”

    Let’s not go assuming that the average smoker visits a doctor, let alone can afford it with the huge amount of their budget the government has made their addiction. To pay for smoking related ills, the tax on tobacco keeps going up, keeps taking away more money the addicts could use for something like medical care, assuming they go in the first place. A lot of smokers I know/knew weren’t all that keen on visiting the doc. Some of them are “knew” because they died of smoking related diseases.

  • Art

    If it’s such a financial burden for them to smoke, they should probably quit, smoke less, or smoke cheepos.

  • badnicolez

    That first sentence should be changed, but only because many people who get lung cancer are not smokers, or have never smoked.

    If this test can be made inexpensively enough, it should be done during annual screenings for everybody say, over the age of thirty, much like a lipid profile is now.

  • Grace

    I think that this is rather interesting. This new device will certainly help discover lung cancer in the more curable early stages, but I’m afraid that I’m not even 16 yet and am having trouble with some of the words and phrases. I’m not saying that you should dumb it down or anything, it’s just a comment. Ignore it if you will. I’m a bit unsure as to how the gold nanoparticles work. Are they actually inhaled? What if someone developed an inability to actually have the nanoparticles near or in their mouth? What do nanoparticles contain? Or are they just random particles? Are they sensors or something more organic? Do they occur naturally? Is this product released for use in the US or is this just a report of going-ons in Israel that could not aid us in anyway unless the patient flew there? (which I’m pretty sure is not included on US citizen’s heath insurance policy) I’m just curious as to what the finer details of this invention are.

  • Steve

    Pretty impressive figuring out that cancer cells emit distinct chemicals in our breath. I guess those reports of some dogs being trained to sniff out cancer are actually plausible.

  • John Stosel

    Oh wow, that is like WAY cool dude. Well done!


  • Chase Daniels

    For some reason that picture really, really turns me on.

  • website

    Police: Good news sir I wont be arresting you for drink driving. The bad news is you have cancer. Have a safe night.
    Man: …..


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