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Bomb sniffing “electric nose” turns cancer detector

Boffins tweak CyraNose to detect malignant, asbestos-related cancers

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Researchers at the University of New South Wales have used a device called the CyraNose 3200 to sniff out malignant mesothelioma, a nasty form of cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos.

The CyraNose is a commercial device used to detect chemical vapours. Named for the legendarily-large-of-proboscis French writer, the CyraNose is often described as an “electric nose” thanks to its ability to sniff out chemicals. The unit’s handheld form factor means it is often used in airport security applications, as a means of detecting explosives residues.

Associate Professor Deborah Yates of the University’s St Vincent's Clinical School said the devices, and others like them, have attracted medical researchers because they offer a non-invasive way to test for the presence of chemicals that indicate disease.

“Today we do things in ways that can be hard for the patient,” Yates said. “Breath testing can be done for everyone: you just breathe out.” Breath testing is, she added, suitable for the old, they young, the infirm and even patients in intensive care. Better yet, “you can do it lots of times,” Yates pointed out, compared to nastier and more invasive tests.

The CyraNose therefore appealed as a way to test for Mesothelioma, a disease that is most often contracted after exposure to asbestos but can take decades to develop and is not always malignant. An easier, non-invasive, test is therefore desirable as a screening mechanism, given that many people have been exposed to asbestos and are keen for an accurate diagnosis. Breath testing also offers the chance for earlier diagnosis, as this gives treatment a greater chance of success.

Yates and her fellow researchers “trained” the CyraNose by exposing it to breath from a control group that does not have mesothelioma, and a group of sufferers. This “training” process is allowed by the CyraNose’s software, which conducts pattern recognition so it can “smell” the presence of cancer with its 32 chemical sensors.

The research found the CyraNose accurate in 88% of cases, as detailed in the European Respiratory Journal. Yates told El Reg those results are encouraging, and she now hopes to proceed to a screening study to further test the technique as a means of diagnosing the disease. Using breath tests to assess the progress of treatments is another possible application. ®

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