With a breath, Technion device finds lung cancer

The 90%-accurate nanotech-based detection system is ready for the market, based on the results of a study by researchers

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

Just breathe into a Technion invention, and it’ll tell you with nearly 90 percent accuracy whether you have deadly lung cancer — hopefully in time to save your life.

“NaNose” should be on the market in a few years, according to developers. It addresses the key obstacle to treating lung cancer — finding it in time to knock it out.

NaNose sniffed out malignant tumors with up to 90 percent accuracy in recent tests. At the heart of the device — which looks like a “breathalyzer,” the tool police use to detect alcohol levels — is a chip based on the NaNose technology developed by a Technion researcher.

It spots the special “odor” emitted by cancer cells, and it can sense the presence of both benign and malignant tumors much more quickly, efficiently and cheaply than current diagnostic measures, said Dr. Hossam Haick of the Technion, who helped develop the technology. “Current cancer diagnosis techniques are ineffective and impractical,” he said. NaNose technology “could facilitate faster therapeutic intervention, replacing expensive and time-consuming clinical follow-up that would eventually lead to the same intervention.”

The NaNose promise of early detection is critical, because once symptoms appear, the cancer is usually too far along to treat effectively.

“Mostly, the patient arrives for diagnosis when the symptoms of the sickness have already begun to appear,” said Haick. “Months pass before a real analysis is 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.”

Haick, along with fellow researchers Prof. Nir Peled, of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and Prof. Fred Hirsch, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, presented the study on the NaNose-based breathalyzer device’s successful cancer detection at a conference in Chicago.

The device, Peled said, “could prove valuable in helping determine patients who need more intensive screening for lung cancer. We’re hoping to have a device that would be able to give you a go/no-go result, something’s wrong, go get an X-ray.”

According to US government statistics, lung cancer kills more Americans every year than the next three most common cancers — colon, breast, and pancreatic — combined. The reason, doctors say, is that lung cancer is so difficult to detect. The only way to find early-stage lung cancer now is through an extensive process involving blood tests, biopsies, CT scans, ultrasound tests and other procedures. Even then, it’s difficult. “Lung cancer diagnoses require invasive procedures such as bronchoscopies, computer-guided biopsies or surgery.”said Peled, noting that “lung cancer is responsible for almost 2,000 deaths in Israel annually, a third of all cancer-related deaths.” .

The NaNose-based breathalyzer could revolutionize the process. It doesn’t require anything more than a patient’s breathing into the device to produce an initial diagnosis. That’s because lung cancer tumors produce chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which easily evaporate into the air and produce a discernible scent profile. The 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.

A study conducted by the researchers on the system’s efficacy was presented at a recent American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago. The study included 358 patients who had been diagnosed with or were at risk for lung cancer. Using the device, researchers were able to sort out the healthy subjects from those with early-stage lung cancer 85% of the time, and healthy people from those with advanced lung cancer at an 82% rate. The test even distinguished between early and advanced lung cancer with a 79% success rate.

“Cancer cells not only have a different and unique smell or signature, you can even discriminate between subtypes and advancement of the disease,” said Peled. “The bigger the tumor, the more robust the signature.”

Study participants were examined at a variety of locations, including UC Denver, Tel Aviv University, University of Liverpool, and a Jacksonville, Florida, radiation center. Other researchers included Prof. Paul Bunn of University of Colorado Denver; Prof. Douglas Johnson, Dr. Stuart Milestone, and Dr. John Wells in Jacksonville; Prof. John Field of the University of Liverpool; and Dr. Maya Ilouze and Tali Feinberg of TAU.

The NaNose 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 begin marketing it in the next few years, a spokesperson said. He added that a smaller version of the device that can plug into a computer’s USB port is also in the works.

Watch a video explaining how the NaNose system works:

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