E-nose smelt what lung cancer dealt

June 5, 2003
Based on technology used in the food industry to detect "off" smells, researchers have successfully used an electronic nose to "smell" tumors in patients known to have lung cancer.

University of Rome scientists have developed a device that uses eight quartz crystals coated with special materials -- different types of metallopophyrins. These bind with certain gas compounds to produce vibration frequencies different than the crystals' natural frequencies, according to a report from New Scientist magazine. Analysis of those frequencies determines the types of compounds detected and matches those to medical problems known to produce unique gas compounds in the breath of those affected. The 60-person trial, held in Rome, detected lung tumors in all 35 people awaiting surgery for removal of large lung tumors, while detecting nothing adverse in the 25 control subjects.

The test, which took only 1 min in this trial, offers a less-costly and less-complex alternative to gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, processes normally used to analyze gas mixtures. Project researchers believe that one day doctors can use an improved nose to screen high-risk groups for lung cancer as part of regular checkups. Former lung-cancer patients can use the nose at home to check against tumor recurrences.

But hurdles remain. The trial only tested subjects with very large tumors on lung surfaces, and the trial was too small to be considered an overwhelming success, said one cancer expert interviewed by the magazine. And even if researchers are successful in developing a much more sensitive nose to detect tumors at earlier stages, it still would only be able to detect lung-surface tumors. Currently, blood tests and bronchoscopies, which use an instrument to look inside patients' lungs and possibly take tissue samples, are used to positively detect lung cancer.

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