Did you know that trained dogs can identify breath samples from patients with lung cancer with 98 percent accuracy? We can't yet match the nozzalicious expertise of our canine companions, but we're getting closer, and a company has been able to create a breathalyzer that can chemically sniff out lung cancer almost as well.
There are many different types of cancer, and to differentiate one kind from another (or even to definitively diagnose the cancer itself) often requires a biopsy, which is a medical term for using a big needle to take a tissue sample for analysis. It's an invasive and expensive procedure, and a company called Metabolomx is hoping to make things cheaper and easier for everyone with their new cancer-sniffing breath analysis machine.
The machine works by using an array of reactants that change color when they detect different volatile compounds. Patients breathe into the machine for five minutes, filters remove bacteria and moisture, and then the reactants do their thing. The machine then takes a picture of the reactant array to see if there are any signs of cancer in the resulting color pattern, and since different types of cancer have different ratios of metabolic products, the system can often tell what kind of cancer it is, too.
In a recently clinical trial, the breath analyzer was able to detect lung cancer with 83% accuracy. The version of the system in that trial was only looking for 24 compounds, while the current version checks 130, meaning that it'll be both more accurate and better at differentiating specific cancers from each other. Each test only costs $75, and it should be possible to expand the analysis beyond cancer to other diseases as well. It may end up that at some point in the near future, a breath test may be just a standard part of a visit to your doctor's office, but as far as we know, Metabolomx isn't sniffing for alcohol at the same time, so you can probably still show up while drunk. Phew!