Non-Invasive, Chip-Based Detection of Lung Cancer Could Soon Be a Reality

A microchip sensor that can measure specific volatile compounds in the breath of those with lung cancer, is being developed by research groups in the United States and in Britain.

A microchip sensor that can measure specific volatile compounds—biomarkers associated with lung cancer—is being evaluated as an early diagnostic tool for lung cancer by various research groups in the United States and in Britain.

A clinical trial in Britain is currently testing a breathanalyzer designed to detect early sings of lung cancer. According to Reuters, Owlstone Medical, the developer of the microchip, is evaluating the microchip technology that can measure the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 17 hospitals in the country. The unique aspect of this chip is the ease of use and the cost, according to company CEO Billy Boyle. “Historically chemical analyzers take up half the size of a room and cost half a million dollars. So what we’ve been able to do is use microchip technology to shrink it down from these massive devices to something about the size of a button. And once it’s in that form factor, you can build it directly into these disease breathalyzer technologies,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

The device is sensitive to very minute quantities of VOCs, which may be expressed during early stages of the disease. This provides opportunity to treat the patient early, when he or she is likely to be much more responsive to treatment, compared with in the advanced stage of the disease. According to the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, early detection has a significant impact on reducing lung cancer mortality, with the 5-year survival rate for early-stage disease at 54%. According to statistics on the website of the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for people with stage IA non-small cell lung cancer is about 49%, while for stage III its just about 5%.

A physician associated with the clinical trial explained the usefulness of this device and its potential to save lives. He believes the breathalyzer will make it easier for doctors to refer their high-risk patients for testing in the hospital. The trial itself is expected to enroll about 3000 individuals who are suspected to have developed lung cancer. These patients will be tested with the device before they undergo biopsy, and the subsequent tissue testing would help validate the findings of the trial.

Boyle is quite optimistic about the clinical applicability of the tiny chip, which he believes could easily be a part of a handheld digital device in the future.

Similar devices are being developed in the United States as well—researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won $100,000 at the Entrepreneurship Competition organized by the university to develop a similar device, which they are calling the L-CARD. The L-CARD can identify VOCs and be read wirelessly by a smartphone, providing diagnostic information in seconds. The device is also cheap, and can be produced for less than a dollar, and shipped anywhere inside of a simple envelope. This would be a significant step, considering the significant costs associated with CT scans, which can only detect tumors that are bigger than a certain threshold size.