An “Electronic Nose” can Sniff Oesophageal Cancer in Patients

A new electronic device is launched that “sniffs” breath. It is used to detect the people who may suffer from a condition that can lead them to esophageal cancer. Researchers revealed that every year in the United Kingdom almost 9000 people detected with esophageal cancer or food pipe cancer.

Researchers from charity Cancer Research UK said that people detected with a condition called “Barret’s esophagus”. It is a precancerous condition in which changes occur in the cell lining of the food pipe and it may abnormally proliferate. Patients may have 11 times more high risk for developing a specific type of esophageal cancer known as esophageal adenocarcinoma as compared to the healthy population. The study is published in the journal Gut.

Patients with Barrett’s esophagus show no symptoms. This condition is more common among the people who experienced long term problems of acid reflux. Being male, having the age of more than 50, obese or overweight are the risk factors for esophagus cancer. UK figures showed that the percentage of people with Barrett’s esophagus who will develop esophageal adenocarcinoma rose from 3% to 13%.

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Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed through an invasive and expensive technique called endoscopy. Now researchers developed a device known as “electronic nose” that can detect the patients with Barrett’s esophagus by examining their breath. Researchers said that through this non-invasive technique now it becomes very easy to screen the patients with Barrett’s esophagus. Due to early screening, the number of cases with esophageal cancer will reduce.

Prof Peter Siersema who is co-author of the research from the Radboud Institute for Health Sciences in the Netherlands said that if a non-invasive test is available for diagnosis then it will become easy to detect the patients who are at risk of developing esophageal cancer. Using this technique will increase the participation rates as compared to using the endoscopy.

He added that this test is done only in 5 mins. Patients with Barrett’s esophagus will be referred for further treatment and investigation.

Before going for endoscopy patients were asked to exhale into an electronic nose. It can detect the volatile molecules from the breath and diagnosed the condition. The volatile molecules are formed as an end product of many processes that occur in the body. Electronic nose through these molecules can detect the changes in cells lining or any disturbance in the local microflora of the Gut caused due to disease.

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The results of the study showed that electronic nose accurately diagnosed the patients with Barrette’s esophagus by 91% of the time while detecting the patients without Barrett’s esophagus by 745 of the time. The system still distinguishes the patients accurately if it is only limited to patients who have any gastro-esophageal reflux disorder or Barrett’s condition.

Siersema said for increasing the accuracy of the system, the team is planning to repeat this process on 1000 more patients. If this system works well then hopefully the device might be available in the GPs setting within the next 2-3 years.

Rebecca Fitzgerald who is a professor of cancer prevention at the MRC cancer unit at the University of Cambridge said that this new technology is amazing as it handles the critical clinical issues i.e. early diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Many false-positive results would be detected if the electronic device is used for healthy patients. More research is needed regarding this approach for further validation and refinement.


Areeba Hussain

The author is a fulltime medical and healthcare writer. She graduated in Medical Microbiology and Immunology with distinction. Her areas of prime interest are medicine, medical technology, disease awareness, and research analysis. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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