Led by Dr. Patrick McCann, a small group of internationally known researchers at the University of Oklahoma with expertise in the development of mid-infrared lasers is working to create a sensor to detect biomarker gases exhaled in the breath of a person with cancer.
The research was inspired by studies showing that dogs can detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients.
For example, by smelling breath samples, dogs identified breast and lung cancer patients with accuracies of 88 and 97 percent, respectively, as reported in the March 2006 issue of Integrative Cancer Therapies.
Proof-of-concept detection of a suspected lung cancer biomarker in exhaled breath has already been established as reported by the Oklahoma group in the July 2007 issue of Applied Optics.
The evidence is clear—gas phase molecules are uniquely associated with cancer.
Intrigued by the concept of using breath analysis to detect cancer, McCann saw an opportunity to use mid-infrared laser technology to help elucidate the relationship between specific gas phase biomarker molecules and cancer.
He believes it is possible to develop easy-to-use detection devices for cancer, particularly for hard-to-detect cancers like lung cancer.
McCann says we need sensors that detect these gas phase cancer biomarkers.
“A device that measures cancer specific gases in exhaled breath would change medical research, as we know it.”
McCann says the science and technology exist to support the development of a new tool to detect cancer, but the research will take from five to 10 years to get low-cost devices into the clinic.
OU may have the strongest contingent of researchers dedicated to providing a solution to the problem using this approach.
Even though studies confirm that dogs can detect cancer by smelling the gases, they can’t tell us what gases they smell.
It’s up to the medical research community using the best measurement tools to figure that out.
According to McCann, “Improved methods to detect molecules have been demonstrated, and more people need to be using these methods to detect molecules given off from cancer.
We have developed laser-based methods to detect molecules. Mid-infrared lasers can measure suspected cancer biomarkers—ethane, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.”
McCann will use nanotechnology to improve laser performance and shrink laser systems, which would allow battery-powered operation of a handheld sensor device.
“You often have to go outside your discipline to pioneer new areas of research and Oklahoma has an advantage with so many experts in other fields. But getting funding for interdisciplinary research is challenging. However, more capital and research infrastructure are needed for this device to become a reality. As we build upon our existing capabilities Oklahoma can become more widely known as a center of excellence in this important area.”
Even though McCann is not a cancer researcher, he wants his research on developing innovative laser technology to benefit the millions of people who would otherwise suffer from a late-stage cancer diagnosis. McCann knows it can be done.
He says, “The science supports it, and the dogs tell us there is something there.”
Some illnesses such as lung and stomach cancer or liver diseases which, due to the difficulty of diagnosis, have symptoms that are often confused with routine disorders.
Therefore, in most cases, the disease is only detected at an advanced stage. New methods for early detection are being investigated as an urgent need.
This is possible because of the changes produced within the organism of an ill person, changes reflected in the exhaled breath of the patient and which enable determining the presence of this type of marker during the initial stages of the disease.
For that, the Ethic Committee of the Clinical Research of Euskadi (CEIC) gave the authorization to the Instituto Biodonostia for the clinical trials
Human breath, whether from a healthy or ill person, is composed of a hundreds of organic compounds: acetone, methanol, butanol, hydrocarbons, amongst others.
There is not a single specific component in the exhaled breath capable of acting as a marker for the diagnosis of lung cancer.
A range of biomarkers and its combination should be selected. The compounds of interest are generally to be found at 1-20 parts per billion (ppb) in healthy human breath but can be increased 10-100-fold in the breath of sick patients.
In order to be able to detect these changes the development of novel materials was required.
During the first phase of the project, breath samples were collected by the hospital staff by a breath collecting device.
A detailed analysis of the most representative compounds present in the breath samples has been carried out and the family or families of compounds required to act as markers for the presence of lung cancer selected.
Organic compounds have been analysed using gas chromatograph/mass spectrometry analysis (GC/MS).
Then, the GC/MS results of breath tests have been analysed by statistical and structural algorithms to discriminate and identify “healthy and “cancerous” patterns that really provide information for the design of the sensor.
In parallel, novel materials for the detection of the selected organic compounds have been developed by Tecnalia in order to increase the sensitivity of the devices.
Participating together with Tecnalia in this project were the Instituto de Tecnologías Químicas Emergentes de La Rioja (Inter-Química) designing the sensor device and the University of Perpignan (France) testing the novel materials.
As a conclusion, the biosensors will facilitate the diagnosis of certain diseases; mainly those located in the lungs,at the initial stages of the illness, which could increase considerably the chances of survival.
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