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Breath test could detect colorectal cancer
December 5th, 2012
12:01 PM ET

Breath test could detect colorectal cancer

The death rate for colorectal cancer has been dropping for more than 20 years, thanks in part to improved screening methods, according to the American Cancer Society. Yet it is still the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths for men and women combined in the United States.

Colonoscopy screenings can prevent about two-thirds of colorectal cancers from developing by detecting precancerous polyps, said Dr. Ted Gansler, director of medical content for ACS.  The ACS recommends men and women over the age of 50 should have a colonoscopy once every 10 years or a yearly fecal blood test.

“Unfortunately, only about half of people age 50 and older in the U.S. are up-to-date on their testing for colorectal cancer,” Gansler said.

Dr. Donato Altomare and his colleagues hope to change that.  The researchers have completed a small clinical trial on a breath test that screens for colorectal cancer using volatile organic compounds.  The results of their study were published this week in the British Journal of Surgery.

Altomare believes patients would be more willing to take a screening breath test over a colonoscopy because the breath test would be quicker, less expensive and non-invasive.

The study

Researchers tested 37 patients with colorectal cancer and 41 patients who had a clean colonoscopy. Patients who were receiving chemotherapy and/or radiation were excluded, as were patients with other colon issues like inflammatory bowel disease. Nineteen of the cancer patients had stage I or II cancer; 18 had stage III or IV.

Study participants remained in a room for 10 minutes to create equilibrium between their breath and the surrounding air.  Their exhaled breath was then collected in a bag and processed to determine each individual’s volatile organic compound, or VOC.

Using VOCs to diagnose cancer is a new frontier in cancer screening, according to the researchers.  Scientists say tumor growth causes metabolic changes that lead to specific compounds that can be detected in exhaled breath.  Ongoing studies are assessing the ability of a breath test to diagnose lung cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer and liver cancer.

The results

No differences were found in the VOC profiles of patients in different stages of the cancer. The breath test analysis correctly identified 32 of the 37 patients with colorectal cancer and incorrectly diagnosed cancer in seven of the 41 healthy patients. Overall, the breath test had an accuracy rate of 76% in identifying patients with cancer.

The researchers concluded breath VOC analysis appears to have potential for detecting colorectal cancers, but further technical development is needed to improve the device’s accuracy.  Altomare said larger studies also need to be done to confirm the test’s reliability.

Going forward

“This is an interesting study, but a lot more research is needed before chemical analysis of exhaled breath might be added to the list of tests currently recommended for colorectal cancer screening,” Gansler said.

Altomare and his team plan to use the breath analysis on patients with precancerous polyps to see if the test can detect them.

“The main goals of current screening tests are not just to find any colorectal cancer, but rather to find early – curable - cancers and precancerous polyps that can be removed to prevent cancer from developing,” Gansler explained.

Altomare also plans to study whether the test works on people who have other colon issues – i.e., whether it can distinguish between cancer and inflammatory diseases.  He is working with a professor in the chemical department at the University of Bari in Italy to create an electronic nose, “which we hope will further make the colorectal cancer screening by breath analysis more easy and available as a screening tool for the general population.”

In the meantime, Gansler urges people to take advantage of screening methods that are already available and have been proven to be effective in saving lives.


soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Rick

    Man, your breath smells like crap. Must be colorectal cancer.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rick's Ra-tarred.

      Da doon doon, tsssss

      December 5, 2012 at 13:47 | Report abuse |
    • csnord

      It makes sense that the chemicals would be present. Most people have their heads up their rectums.

      December 5, 2012 at 16:05 | Report abuse |
  2. Sybaris

    So these guys are going to create a cancer screening machine, sell it for a pant load and hospitals are going to charge you a bazillion peso's to use it...................... when a properly trained dog can already do it.

    December 5, 2012 at 13:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ed

      Of course. Like patentable new medicines (expensive) vs compounds that have medicinal properties that have been around forever (non-patentable and cheap)

      This is why weed, psilocybin, and and many nonintoxicating alkaloids are not legal for use in Western medicine. Too freakin' cheap and big pharma want to be paid... and paid well!

      December 5, 2012 at 15:29 | Report abuse |
  3. Dan gaydos

    Maybe that's why dogs can be trained to detect cancer in some people . The dog smells the cancer compounds in the breath of the person it is examing

    December 5, 2012 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. cnnlicksit

    What if we ate through our butts and pooped out our mouths?

    December 5, 2012 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BioHzrd420

      Yeah...Thanks Cartman

      December 5, 2012 at 13:31 | Report abuse |
    • D.I.

      It would make me afraid to kiss, let alone have sex. And everyone's breath would stink.

      December 6, 2012 at 10:58 | Report abuse |
  5. Yl

    I wish CNN would stop trying to be so cheeky all the time.

    December 5, 2012 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Nophah Kingweigh

    There are some who will miss the "invasive" nature of the currently accepted procedure...

    December 5, 2012 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Todd

    This gives a whole new meaning to "Scope" !

    December 5, 2012 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. assbreath

    Gives new meaning to the phrase, "Your breath smells like ass."

    December 5, 2012 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. mikescouch

    So if you talk too much smack you can be mistaken for this.. due to the breath??

    December 5, 2012 at 14:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Canopy

    I hear a dog is 100% accurate.

    December 5, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. mk001

    Is it the actual person's breath or the breath of the person that has been kissing butt?

    December 5, 2012 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mike

    Laugh all you want but I'm telling you, before we found out my wife had liver/kidney cancer, her breath smell changed. Never before had I ever found her breath objectionable, but I did then. By the time she was checked out it was too late.

    December 5, 2012 at 15:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. ;p;

    Wouldn't it make better sense to collect their farts?

    December 5, 2012 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • smccuen

      I was thinking the same thing – and maybe there would be less interference from other things, like tobacco, gum, food, drinks....closer to the source (i.e., colon mass) anyway.

      December 5, 2012 at 18:01 | Report abuse |
    • Debbie

      you'd think wouldn't ya, LMAO

      December 5, 2012 at 18:06 | Report abuse |
  14. Timothy

    This makes the old Cliche "Your breathe smells like Sheet" come true... LoL

    December 5, 2012 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • teehee a pooopie joke

      In 48 years, you'll need to get checked too. Does mommy know you're online?

      December 5, 2012 at 20:58 | Report abuse |
  15. jj

    I am up on my tests, but the breath test sounds much better than a colonoscopy!

    December 5, 2012 at 17:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jj's Dr.

      Your colonoscopy wasn't too bad. Once I got past that fiesty gerbil, it was smooth sailing!

      December 6, 2012 at 10:15 | Report abuse |
  16. Buzz

    May as well turn the comments off now.......

    December 5, 2012 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. saveyourfeet

    Interesting. What I care about is this: I am a type 1 diabetic. My feet were going to be amputated. until I found a simple way to stop that from happening. if you are a diabetic you need to read saveyourfeetDOTwordpressDOTcom

    December 5, 2012 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. beachgalone

    "Altomare believes patients would be more willing to take a screening breath test over a colonoscopy because the breath test would be quicker, less expensive and non-invasive." you think?

    December 5, 2012 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RoadRunner, Albuquerque, NM

    For people who are dying of cancer, I'm sure all of your jokes and levity are very uplifting. After all cancer patients go through, the fear, the pain, the humiliation, and loss of their lives or that of their loved ones, is it asking too much that you pass them off as cheap jokes and make fun of them? Remember, what goes around, comes around.

    December 5, 2012 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hahahahahahahaha

      If life and death can't be funny, well.........then you might as well be dead!!!!!! Hahahahahahhaha

      December 6, 2012 at 10:13 | Report abuse |
  20. Dr. Spock

    Are they SURE they were smelling the guy's mouths?

    December 5, 2012 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kev

      I'm a 52 year old woman who has been running for 7 years. After 2 years of pritiascrnatong, I had my first colonoscopy screening a few months ago. The worst part of the process was when I added too much Crystal Light lemon/lime flavoring to the solution I needed to drink!I was very nervous about my screening, but it went off without a hitch, and came back negative.My advice: don't wait. And lay off the Crystal Light flavoring!

      December 19, 2012 at 06:06 | Report abuse |
  21. GOPIsGreedOverPeople

    It works 100% of the time on someone that votes for the GOP.

    December 6, 2012 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.