Charlene Bayer, Sheryl G.A. Gabram, and Lorraine Trim (l-r) prepare Dana Allen to exhale into a device that will collect her breath.

Lindsey Rooney

June 1, 2010

2 Min Read
Breathing Innovation into Breast Cancer Detection

Eliminating the harmful effects of radiation is the objective of researchers from Georgia Tech, Emory University, and the University of Ulm in Germany. The team has developed a noninvasive device to detect the presence of breast cancer that doesn’t require exposing women to radiation.

The portable device is used to measure the biomarkers in human breath, which are volatile organic compounds that originate in the lower lungs. According to a Georgia Institute of Technology release, “Certain compounds are related to oxidative stress, the body’s response to inflammation, and are often an indication of disease.”

When a patient breathes into the device, it traps the compounds. Then a sensor, which is based on the methodology of combining gas chromatography with mass spectrometry, determines the chemical makeup of a substance. From there, specific patterns in the compounds are used to confirm whether disease is present.

“Scientists know that it’s possible to detect different chemical compounds from a person’s breath and relate them to illness,” says Charlene Bayer, principal research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. “Yet they haven’t been able to quantify results—such as determining a patient has a tumor because he or she has X amount of Y compounds in his or her breath.”

Allen demonstrates a device that traps specific compounds. The compounds are examined to confirm the presence or absence of cancer.

The team has had some early success with its device. In a clinical study, it analyzed the breath samples of 20 healthy women over age 40 as well as 20 women diagnosed with stage II–IV breast cancer who had not received treatment. According to the release, “The results showed that the breath analysis was able to determine whether the sample came from a cancer patient or healthy subject 78% of the time.”

Currently the researchers are trying to figure out which compounds are the most relevant to the detection of breast cancer. In the previously mentioned clinical study, the scientists analyzed more than 300 volatile organic compounds. Going forward, they hope to reduce the number of compounds that are necessary to test for.

Bayer says that the immediate results provided by the device could help increase early detection for women who not do have access to mammograms. Additionally, it could facilitate interval testing for women who are at high risk for breast cancer.

Other contributors to this project include Brani Vidakovic, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University; Sheryl G.A. Gabram, a professor of surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology at Emory University; and University of Ulm professor Boris Mizaikoff.

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