Israeli-developed breath test catches stomach cancer early

NaNose, the Technion-built nano-technology detection system, proves as effective as standard method, far simpler, cheaper

A patient uses the NaNose breathalyzer (Photo credit: Courtesy Technion)
A patient uses the NaNose breathalyzer (Photo credit: Courtesy Technion)

The NaNose technology developed at Israel’s Technion is an effective tool in detecting early-stage gastric (stomach) cancer, according to a study published Monday in the medical journal Gut.

The study showed that the tech was able to detect elements indicating the onset of the cancer in the breath of patients, matching the results picked up by the standard method of gastric cancer detection, called GCMS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry).

The advantage of his method, said Dr. Hossam Haick of the Technion, inventor of NaNose, is that the nano-tech breath analysis is a lot cheaper and presents results far more quickly than GCMS. “The attraction of this test lies in its non-invasiveness, ease of use, rapid predictiveness, and potentially low cost,” enabling doctors in clinics who don’t have access to the expensive needed for GCMS analysis to diagnose stomach cancer.

“Mostly the patient arrives for diagnosis when the symptoms of the sickness have already begun to appear,” Haick told The Times of Israel in an interview earlier this year, describing the drawbacks in current detection protocols. “Months pass before a real analysis in completed. And the process requires complicated and expensive equipment such as CT and mammography imaging devices. Each machine costs millions of dollars, and end up delivering rough, inaccurate results.”

The NaNose technology, installed in a breathalyzer device, on the other hand, doesn’t require anything more than a patient’s breath in order to come up with an initial diagnosis. Cancer tumors produce chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which easily evaporate into the air and produce a discernible scent profile. Haick’s NaNose chip detects the unique “signature” of VOCs in exhaled breath. In four out of five cases, the device differentiated between benign and malignant lung lesions and even different cancer subtypes.

In the newly-published study, the team collected breath samples from 484 people, of whom 99 had been previously confirmed as having stomach cancer. The samples were tested using the standard GCMS method, and the NaNose system, which consists of nano-sized gold sensors which detect molecular changes in the breath of cancer patients. The system was able to accurately detect over 80% of the cancers – right on the spot – and was able to ferret out several patients who had precancerous growths that needed attention.

Dr. Hossam Haick (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Hossam Haick (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Using the system, the team was able to identify patients at high and low risk for stomach cancer, and was also able to compensate for the effects of drugs, alcohol use, and other factors that often make early-stage stomach cancer detection difficult. That last point is crucial, say medical experts; when a patient complains of stomach pains, doctors usually address the more likely possibilities, such as indigestion, gas, etc., and often it takes months to diagnose stomach cancer – by which time the disease could be far advanced.

“Currently, there is no perfect noninvasive tool to screen for stomach cancer,” said Haick. “Small and inexpensive sensing technology could be developed and used to fulfill these clinical needs.”

With that, Haick admits that the system needs more work – and more studies. A large study using the tech to detect stomach cancer in European patients is now underway, and results are expected in several months, Haick said. Meanwhile, medical device companies aren’t waiting; last year, the technology was licensed last year by Boston’s Alpha Szenszor, a maker of carbon nanotube based sensors which is developing the breathalyzer device for the market. The company hopes to introduce it to the market within the next few years, a spokesperson said, adding that a new, smaller version of the device that can plug into a computer’s USB port is also in the works.

Considering the interest from around the world in his project, Haick believes that the uses for NaNose will grow, and that it will eventually become a standard for cancer diagnosis.

“It’s a winning solution. It will be made tinier and cheaper than disease detection solutions currently, consume little power, and most importantly, it will enable immediate and early diagnosis that is both accurate and non-invasive. Early diagnosis can save lives, particularly in life-threatening diseases such as cancer.”

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