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Published: 20 June 2012  
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NA-NOSE – The simple breath test that can detect cancer

No-one wants to be told that they have cancer. But the earliest possible diagnosis is often the key to ensuring survival. So a new technique developed by scientists wich can instantly detect cancer even in its very earliest stages, using just a simple breath-test, offers the clear hope of a major breakthrough in improving cancer survival rates.

Designed to mimic a dog's highly sensitive sense of smell, the new "electronic nose" takes a sample of the patient's breath and gives an instant reading - not only of whether cancer is present, but how far advanced it is. Early tests for the device have already shown extremely exciting results.

Known as the NA-NOSE (short for Nano Artificial Nose), the test works by spotting microscopic changes in the body that occur when cancer is present.

By detecting cancer without having to wait for tumours to grow, the NA-NOSE offers a unique early warning system that could save thousands of lives, allowing cancers to be diagnosed and treated earlier than has ever been possible before. It would be especially valuable in diagnosing cancers that are otherwise hard to detect in time.

Nor does it stop with cancer. The NA-NOSE will potentially be able to pick up early signs of other serious diseases as well, such as Parkinson's, Kidney Disease, Liver Disease, Alzheimer's or MS – making it truly a "'wonder device".

"At first, I thought to myself this is science fiction. It can't be true", says Professor Abraham Kuten, one of the scientists involved in developing the NA-NOSE. But based on the successful results so far, Professor Kuten says, it could turn out to be "a very important tool in the early detection of cancer."

The potentially breakthrough project was funded by a € 1.7 million Marie Curie Excellence Team grant from the European Commission. These grants are designed to enable promising researchers to carry out leading-edge research of particular importance to Europe.

In the case of the NA-NOSE, that grant could be repaid many times over in saved health care costs, if early test results are anything to go by.

When breath-tests were carried out on an initial group of 62 volunteers - some with head and neck cancer, some with lung cancer, and some of whom were healthy - the NA-NOSE correctly diagnosed all of the patients with the two types of cancer. It also correctly identified all but two of the healthy patients of the healthy patients.

The secret of the NA-NOSE lies in a row of sub-microscopic (nanoparticle) gold sensors, which can detect tiny molecular changes that occur in the blood of cancer patients. They can do this at levels of concentration so low that it has been likened to detecting one single flower in a vast field of flowers - using the sense of smell alone.

Using these tiny molecular traces, the device can not only detect cancer but also distinguish between different types of cancer including lung, breast, colorectal, prostate, head and neck.

The scientist who led the research, Professor Hossam Haick of the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), was inspired to carry out the research after witnessing the sufferings of a friend who had leukaemia.

Extensive further testing of the NA-NOSE will be required. But if all goes well, says Professor Haick, it could be in use for breast and colorectal cancer patients within three years and for other types of cancer in about seven years.

Thanks to this revolutionary new "electronic nose", with its promise of reliable, noninvasive and inexpensive early diagnosis, screening for cancer could be on the verge of entering a whole new world.

The ability to literally "sniff out" cancer and other major diseases could indeed become a reality.

Project details

  • Participants: Israel (Coordinator)
  • FP6 Project N° 42348
  • Total costs: € 1 730 000
  • EU contribution: € 1 730 000
  • Duration: April 2007 - March 2011

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