Breathalyser sniffs out cancer

A device that can sniff out early signs of lung cancer in a person's breath is being developed by British scientists.

The cancer "breathalyser" works using technology originally designed for oil prospecting.

It uses lasers to detect tiny traces of ethane in the breath, and is so sensitive it can spot concentrations of less than one part per billion.

Lung cancer releases ethane by breaking down cells.

Dr Kenneth Skeldon, who is working on the project at the University of Glasgow, said: "Early detection and monitoring of cancer and other serious diseases hugely improves the effectiveness of treatment and the possibility of cure.

"People can produce a higher trace of ethane in their breath when cancer strikes. It turns out that the amounts involved are similar to those given off by an oil reservoir.

"Our technology was first developed with that area in mind, but now we are sniffing out human ethane using advanced laser technology."

The research is being conducted jointly with the company BOC, which is providing the pure gases and ultra-clean pumps needed to make the device work.

An estimated 30,000 people die from lung cancer each year in the UK, and only about 5% of sufferers survive five years after diagnosis.

The disease can lurk in the body for up to 20 years before any symptoms appear. By the time it is detected it is often too late.

The new device, dubbed the "laser nose" by experts working on the prototype, could potentially save many lives by helping doctors detect signs of lung cancer earlier.

Nick Ward, business manager for BOC Scientific, said: "Patients could have an immediate answer on their condition, ending the agonising wait for normal cancer test results.

"We believe this technology could soon find its way into hospitals where it will be put to real use helping medical diagnosis."

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