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Could a simple breath test replace colonoscopy for cancer screening?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
A simple breath test detects colorectal cancer.

It may be too soon to suggest that you can forgo your colonoscopy for a breath test, but researchers are working in that direction. For those who refuse to have their colonoscopy, a fecal occult blood test can at least let you know if you need more testing. The good news is there may someday be an inexpensive, less invasive way to detect the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. by simply having your breath analyzed.

Researchers say the test that was 75% accurate for detecting colon cancer in studies is still in the early stages of development.

The study included 37 patients with colorectal cancer and compared to 41 healthy controls whose breath was analyzed for the presence and pattern of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), based on 58 different compounds.

The results showed colorectal cancer patients exhale a different pattern of the compounds that the researchers identified by using a probabilistic neural network (PNN).

Dr. Donato F. Altomare, a researcher with the Department of Emergency and Organ Transplantation at the Universite degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro in Bari said in a press release, “Our study's findings provide further support for the value of breath testing as a screening tool."

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends routine colorectal cancer screening beginning at age 50 up to age 75. If you have polyps, your doctor might recommend colonoscopy and then a repeat in 5 years. For others, time between colonoscopies is longer, but speak with your physician for recommendations.

Colon cancer has no symptoms until the disease is advanced, making screening especially important. Family history, high red meat intake, advanced age, type 2 diabetes, smoking, heavy alcohol use and history of inflammatory bowel disease can raise the chances that you’ll develop cancer of the colon or rectum.

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Colon cancer isn't the only disease researchers are trying to detect with a simple breath test.

Dr. Peter Mazzone at the Cleveland Clinic has developed a breath analyzer that can potentially detect several types of lung cancer with over 80% accuracy.

The technique is easy and non-expensive, Altomare says. Finding out whether you have colon cancer by having your breath analyzed would mean less risk of complications and could potentially save health care dollars.

The breath test isn't ready for use as a routine screening for cancer yet.

Detecting colorectal and other types of cancer with a breath analyzer based on exhaled compounds is a new field of study that could someday replace the need for colonoscopy and other invasive testing for even lung cancer.

The new study shows 75% accuracy for detecting the disease, but more research is needed. Until then, make sure you get your colonoscopy. Colorectal cancer is most curable when caught early.

British Journal of Surgery
December 5, 2012

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