Cancer Symptoms: Scientists Develop New Technology To Diagnose Stomach Cancer Using Breathalyzer

Similar to breathalyzers that detect alcohol in your breath, new devices developed by researchers may soon be able to identify differences in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by cancerous cells.

Your breath may soon offer valuable clues about your health. In a new study published in the journal Gut, researchers have developed a technology known as nanoarray analysis that can detect tiny changes in exhaled breath — like differences in the levels of compounds emitted by cells. The breath, analyzed by this device, could provide clues to the development of stomach cancer and other stomach problems and lesions.

The researchers hope that this new breathalyzer-like device could aid in diagnosing gastric cancer earlier on, as well as monitoring people who are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

“The attraction of this test lies in its non-invasiveness, ease of use (therefore high compliance would be expected), rapid predictiveness, insensitivity to confounding factors, and potentially low cost,” the authors wrote.

In the study, researchers gathered two breath samples from 484 people after they refrained from smoking for three hours, and eating for 12 hours. 99 percent of the participants had already been diagnosed with stomach cancer, but not yet treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy; the researchers tested them with both the GCMS technique, which measures volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and the nanoarray analysis. The GCMS found that both cancer patients and healthy patients had different “breath prints.” Eight VOCs showed significant differences in cancer patients. The levels also different based on the stage of cancer each patient was in, which would allow scientists to better diagnose them.

“Most patients with gastric cancer in Western countries are diagnosed at advanced stages when the survival chances are relatively poor,” the authors wrote. “Detection of precancerous lesions would allow surveillance to be performed, making early detection of the transformation to cancer possible. Highly accurate non-invasive screening methods for gastric cancer and related precancerous lesions are lacking.”

Detecting cancer by breath isn’t new. Last year, researchers at the University of Colorado developed a portable breath test that could detect both lung cancer and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) based on volatile organic compounds exhaled from the lungs. These small particles are often tiny clues and signs of diseases, making the breath an easy pathway to target for diagnoses. Other researchers developed a breath test for breast cancer.

Another recent study carried out by Nico de Rooij and a team of researchers at SAMLAB in Switzerland found that a new device could distinguish the breath of a person with head and neck cancer.

All of this research has stemmed from the fact that when you breathe out, you’re not only exhaling air; it’s full of volatile organic compounds, which are often telling of the person’s health. Since the metabolism of cancer cells is different from healthy cells, they release different particles — and thus leave their mark on your breath. So, in a way, there is such a thing as “cancer breath,” though a very sensitive device is needed to detect it.

And in the advent of using smartphones for medical purposes, a cancer breathalyzer on your smartphone may indeed be a possibility in the future, along with blood tests and screenings for other chronic diseases (which are being worked on). The researchers are currently working on a big trial with thousands of patients across Europe to further test the device in diagnosing stomach cancer.

Source: Amal H, Leja M, Funka K, Skapars R, Sivins A, Ancans G. Detection of precancerous gastric lesions and gastric cancer through exhaled breath. Gut. 2015.

Ignored Cancer Symptoms

Before you discount that persistent cough as just another part of flu season, you might want to ask your doctor to give it a second glance. According to a recent study by Cancer Research U.K., more than half of adults have experienced alarm bells that could mean cancer, yet just 2% of them believed cancer could be a possible cause.

Researchers sent questionnaires to nearly 5,000 U.K. residents registered with general practitioners—in other words, men and women who have and visit a primary care doctor. Just shy of 1,800 people completed the questionnaire, and five were eliminated because they indicated they’d already been diagnosed with cancer. They asked participants if, in the last three months, they’d experienced a host of different symptoms (some of which could be possible signs of cancer), ranging from persistent coughing and unexplained weight loss to having low energy. If they had experienced any of these symptoms, they were asked to write in what they thought caused it and whether it was serious.

“We aren’t sure why, but it seems there is a mismatch between what people know in practice and whether they apply the knowledge to themselves,” says study co-author Katriina Whitaker, PhD, senior research fellow at University College London. “So while awareness of many of these signs and symptoms is quite high, very few people mention cancer as a possible cause when it’s them who is experiencing the symptom.”

Here, we take a look at the 10 symptoms researchers consider to be red flags. While they could be nothing, the researchers say the point is to recognize that they could also be cancer—and to ask your doctor to check your symptoms out.

1. Persistent cough or hoarseness
While a cough here and there is nothing to worry about, a consistent cacophony or a cough accompanied by blood is definitely cause for concern. “Most coughs are not cancer,” says Therese Bartholomew Bevers, MD, professor of clinical cancer prevention and the medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. “But certainly a persistent cough needs to be evaluated to see if it could be lung cancer.” Your physician should recommend a chest X-ray or CT scan to rule out cancer as a possibility.

2. Persistent change in bowel habits
When your bowel movements aren’t as easy as they once were or your stool appears larger than normal or somewhat deformed, this could be a sign of colon cancer, says Bartholomew Bevers. “It could be a sign that there is a mass impeding the transit of the stool from the bowel,” she says. “This is a symptom where a person should go to the doctor and schedule a colonoscopy to see if there indeed is a mass.”

3. Persistent change in bladder habits
“If there is blood in the urine, that could be indicative of bladder or kidney cancer—but more commonly this is a sign of a urinary tract infection,” says Bartholomew Bevers. Check for an infection first, then pursue other treatment options.

4. Persistent unexplained pain
“Most pain is not a sign of cancer, but persistent pain must be checked out,” says Bartholomew Bevers. “If you have persistent headaches, for example, you likely don’t have brain cancer—but it is still something that must be looked into. Persistent pain in the chest could be a sign of lung cancer. And pain in your abdomen could be ovarian cancer.”

5. Change in the appearance of a mole
While not all moles are indicative of melanoma, spotting a new mark or one that has changed is something you should bring up with a dermatologist who can screen for skin cancer, says Bartholomew Bevers. (Check out these new signs of skin cancer you need to know about.)

6. A sore that doesn’t heal
If you have a sore that’s hanging on past the three-week mark, you should bring it up with your doctor. “We would have expected our body to have healed itself by now,” says Bartholomew Bevers, “and you should absolutely get that checked out.” That kind of sore could be a sign of carcinoma.

7. Unexpected bleeding
Vaginal bleeding—outside of your normal cycle—could be an early sign of cervical cancer, while bleeding from the rectum could indicate colon cancer, says Bartholomew Bevers.

MORE: 10 Weird Things That Destroy Your Immune System

8. Unexplained weight loss
“As adults, we try very hard to lose weight,” says Bartholomew Bevers. “But if weight is falling off of you without any effort on your part, that is a big concern and can be indicative of a serious medical problem.” One of those problems, she says, could be malignancy or a tumor.

9. An unexplained lump
“Any time you have a lump that is new or a lump that is changing, that is something you should absolutely have looked at by your doctor,” says Bartholomew Bevers. While it could be a benign cyst (and likely is), it could also be “a cancer that is in the subterranean tissue. A lump in the breast, of course, is a very common symptom of breast cancer.” See your physician to get more information.

10. Persistent difficulty swallowing
Two cancers may be behind this symptom, including neck and esophageal cancer. “People who see these symptoms will often start to modify their diets, eating softer foods without thinking there could be a more serious issue.”

“The bottom line,” says Whitaker, “is that if people are experiencing any persistent symptoms, they should go to their doctor for advice.”