The researchers of this latest trial hope successful trials of the technology could lead to its use by general practitioners as a preliminary test for further diagnostic cancer tests. Cells produce a variety of VOCs as part of their ordinary biochemical reactions, and the researchers say VOC patterns sometimes change when cancer alters those reactions. I found watching the display on the computer during the test interesting and soon we were done, without any discomfort.
Directly funded by device manufacturer Owlstone Medical, the test will at first take samples from people suspected of having stomach or oesophageal cancers, before being expanded to look for signs of other types, such as pancreatic, prostate, kidney, bladder and liver cancers.
Dr David Crosby, head of early detection research at Cancer Research UK, said: "Technologies such as this breath test have the potential to revolutionize the way we detect and diagnose cancer in the future".
While biopsies or other invasive tests take time to organise, the breathalyser could be operated in a GP's surgery.
This particular method involves chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be produced by the body's cells' metabolism.
"Intuitively, lung cancer seems the most obvious cancer to be detected in the breath", she continued.
The samples will then be sent to a laboratory in Cambridge to be analysed.
Scientists also believe that different cancers will cause recognisable alterations in the VOCs, allowing them to determine the chemical signatures for each.
If the trial is successful, cancer could be detected in early stages and many more lives could be saved through treatment.
The idea is to identify if cancer signals are similar or different and how early any signals could be picked up.
Lead investigator Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: "We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease".
Billy Boyle, of maker Owlstone Medical, said: "There's increasing potential for it to aid diagnosis alongside blood and urine tests".
"Owlstone Medical will be funding the trial directly, however, none of this would be possible without the support and infrastructure provided by Cancer Research UK", Owlstone said in a statement.
Owlstone Medical is the pioneer that developed this device and test. The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don't need.
There are around 360,000 new United Kingdom cancer cases and 160,000 deaths each year.
Similarly, a greater understanding of the biology of cancer means researchers are now confident they know what to look for.