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BC Cancer researcher looking into breath and sweat as an early marker for lung cancer

August 1 is World Lung Cancer Day. Today, ongoing research into volatile organic compounds (VOC) found in the lungs could be a biomarker for the early detection of lung cancer.
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​In May 2020, BC Cancer researcher Dr. Renelle Myers opened the first Breathomics Lab in B.C. with specialized equipment to study the components of breath for the early detection of lung cancer.  Breath samples from lung cancer patients will be compared to breath samples from people without lung cancer to see if there are clues in breath that could indicate a possible tumour.  The inspiration for this new research stemmed from dogs that have been able to detect cancer or other health concerns in humans. 

“A dog’s sense of smell is very sensitive, but they’re not the ideal cancer detection machine,” says Dr. Renelle Myers, BC Cancer scientist and respirologist. “Dogs are able to detect something; whether it’s in breath or body scent, or both. That’s why we’re targeting both options.”

Previous research has shown that breath and sweat contain organic compounds which are naturally shed from the body.   There is potential to detect a person’s health by examining the compounds expelled from the body which could include viral infections and potentially tumours like lung cancer. 

“The machine we have is powerful, it can detect over a thousand volatile organic compounds in our breath and sweat,” says Dr. Myers. “We are currently working with people coming in for lung cancer testing to see if they will consent to providing a breath and sweat sample while they’re waiting for their diagnostic procedure.”

The hope is that eventually they will be able to narrow down a compound(s) in breath or sweat that could be used as a reliable biomarker for the early detection of lung cancer. This could be used in combination with lung cancer screening to identify high risk patients. 

“Right now everyone requires a biopsy because it’s our only way of definitively diagnosing lung cancer. Many nodules we detect on screening CT scans of the lungs are not cancer but it’s difficult to know with certainty without actual tissue. Using breath as a non-invasive biomarker in combination with CT screening will help us triage nodules for follow up and determine which would require invasive biopsy." 

Any potential biomarkers identified in this discovery study will require validation in a larger trial. 

The ultimate goal is to have the breath or sweat test used in combination with CT screening to increase the ability to detect lung cancer at an early stage, which will improve outcomes for people in B.C. and beyond. 

Earlier this year, Dr. Myers and her Breathomics Lab pivoted to use their equipment and research methods to determine a marker for COVID-19 using the same principles. The results of this research could allow for rapid, reliable COVID-19 screening which has the potential to streamline travel and access to large sporting or entertainment events. This work is ongoing. 

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