New technology could help with early diagnosis

A novel cancer-detecting breathalyzer invented by British scientists is going into clinical trials in China, where lung cancer rates have shot up sharply over the last 15 years.

Cambridge-based developer Owlstone Medical, who came up with the device, said it acts as an "electronic nose".

In humans, chemical biomarkers associated with several different forms of cancer are carried in the blood and make their way into the breath. A special microchip in the breathalyzer picks up on these chemicals. Owlstone says that researchers can identify different types of cancer biomarkers by reprogramming the software in the chip.

Early trials in the United Kingdom suggest that this "breath biopsy" method could be used to detect some cancers earlier and with greater accuracy than conventional forms of testing, significantly improving survival rates in many types of the illness.

Renji Hospital in Shanghai will carry out the new trial, with support from Hong Kong-based charity the Li Ka Shing Foundation.

"Healthcare systems around the world are increasingly recognizing that better and more reliable approaches to the early detection of disease is one of the most effective ways to support patients and to control healthcare costs," said Wang Liwei, director of Oncology at Renji Hospital.

"Breath-based diagnostics have the potential to revolutionize the way that this challenge is approached and we are very pleased to be partnering with Owlstone Medical to establish the first breath biopsy lab outside of the UK."

Owlstone has already completed a lung cancer trial in the UK, and has now received the backing of the National Health Service and Cancer Research UK to further develop the technology and run large-scale trials.

The company's chief executive Billy Boyle said Owlstone's partnership in China will be useful given the size of the trials they will be able to design.

"Renji Hospital is a leader in cancer and other areas of medical research and represents an ideal partner for us," he said.

"With over 50,000 inpatients per year, the studies undertaken in this newly established breath biopsy lab will prove to be a significant driver of our goal to save 100,000 lives."

While the device is able to detect several types of cancers, the trial in China will focus on lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

A reduction in the number of people smoking, improved treatment and earlier detection have all helped reduce the number of deaths caused by lung cancer in some countries, including the United States and the UK. In China, however, cases of lung cancer are on the rise.

In its 2018 report, the China National Cancer Center registered 781,000 new cases of lung cancer. This accounts for over one-third of the global total, and is up from 730,000 cases registered in the 2017 report.

The organization said this is partly due to an ageing population. However, it also cautioned that instances of adenocarcinoma are on the rise. This type of lung cancer is different to squamous cell carcinoma, the lung cancer most closely associated with smoking.

China's National Cancer Center said that increasing levels of adenocarcinoma could be linked to long-term exposure to air pollution.

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