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Electronic nose sniffs out mesothelioma on patient’s breath

A device that analyzes the human "breathprint" can distinguish between people with malignant pleural mesothelioma and persons who have been exposed to asbestos but do not have the disease.


Researchers from Italy and The Netherlands collected exhaled breath samples from 39 people using the Cyranose 320, an “electronic nose” that can analyze a person’s breath to detect volatile organic compounds, carbon-based chemicals that are often odorless. Building materials, some of which are laced with asbestos, are a common source of VOCs.


The subjects included 13 patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma and 13 people subjects who had long-term occupational exposure to asbestos. A control group of 13 healthy subjects without asbestos exposure was also tested.


Taking multiple measurements, the device was able to distinguish people with the disease from those who had been exposed to asbestos but were disease-free in at least 80 percent of the tests. The device distinguished the mesothelioma patients from the healthy subjects nearly 85 percent of the time.


The results suggest that breathprints obtained by the electronic nose have the potential to diagnose patients with mesothelioma in its earlier stages, which could improve long-term prognosis. The disease, which kills 2,000-3,000 Americans each year, often does not respond to traditional treatments, in part because mesothelioma can take decades to emerge and is therefore usually diagnosed in later stages.


The ability to “sniff out” mesothelioma would also be an improvement on the standard method of diagnosing the disease, thorascopic biopsy. The procedure involves removing a tissue sample by inserting a thin tube through an incision into the chest. It can cause a collapsed lung, blood loss, embolism and other problems, particularly in elderly patients.


The Cyranose 320 was developed at California Institute of Technology, with funding from NASA, as a tool for quality control in the food and chemical industries. According to NASA, future applications for the hand-held device are “fast growing” and include the immediate diagnosis of chemical components and microorganisms in breath, wounds, and bodily fluid.


Welch Allyn, a major manufacturer of medical device manufacturers, is currently working the Cyranose 320’s manufacturer in California to develop diagnostic tools for primary care providers.