Colorectal Cancer May Be Just A Breath Away

Colorectal cancer screening may one day involve a breath test

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Of all the screenings, looking for colorectal cancer is one of the most dreaded. That’s because the most effective tests are invasive and uncomfortable. Work is underway to bring a breath of fresh air to the process.

Scientists are working on a breath test to detect colorectal cancer. When perfected, folks will only have to breathe into a mouthpiece.

"Get screened for colorectal cancer."

When cancer starts to form, changes in the body produce specific types of substances called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds can be detected in exhaled breath. Analyzing the patterns of VOCs linked to cancer is being studied to screen a variety of malignancies, including lung cancer.

This small study, led by Donato F. Altomare, MD, of the Department of Emergency and Organ Transplantation at the University Aldo Moro of Bari, involved 37 colorectal cancer patients and 41 healthy individuals who served as controls.

The scientists identified the VOCs of interest and the patterns of these substances that could distinguish between folks with cancer and healthy individuals. Researchers collected exhaled breath from the study participants. An assessment tool called a probabilistic neural network (PNN) was used to tell the difference in the VOC patterns of each group.

Based on an analysis of 15 out of 58 select compounds found in the breath, scientists found that colorectal cancer patients had a different VOC pattern than the healthy individuals.

The PNN correctly identified patients with colorectal cancer with better than 75 percent accuracy. This model was able to detect the cancer in 19 patients.

The authors wrote, “Breath VOC analysis appears to have potential clinical application in colorectal cancer screening, although further studies are required to confirm its reliability in heterogeneous clinical settings.”

Dr. Altomare said in a statement, "The technique of breath sampling is very easy and non-invasive, although the method is still in the early phase of development. Our study's findings provide further support for the value of breath testing as a screening tool."

This study was published December 5 in the British Journal of Surgery. No conflicts of interest were reported.

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Review Date: 
December 6, 2012
Last Updated:
December 10, 2012