Health and Healthcare Systems

A cancer-detecting breathalyzer has moved into clinical trials

A nurse wears a watch and stethoscope at St Thomas' Hospital in central London January 28, 2015. Dearly-loved and overburdened, Britain's national health system has become the top issue for voters ahead of May's election, after winter brought headlines of ambulances queueing outside hospitals and patients languishing on trolleys for hours.The National Health Service (NHS) delivers care for free to the whole population from cradle to grave and accounts for a third of government spending on public services. Photograph taken January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH ELECTIONS) - LM1EB221CXY01

1500 participants are need for the trials. Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Kristin Houser
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Healthcare Delivery is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Healthcare Delivery

On The Hunt

By breathing for just 10 minutes, 1,500 people could help usher in the future of cancer detection.

A team of UK researchers has launched a clinical trial to test a cancer-detecting breathalyzer. The device is designed to recognize molecules that indicate a range of cancers — and if it works as hoped, it could lead to a paradigm-shifting new era of non-invasive cancer screening.

Early Warning

The device is called Breath Biopsy, and UK-based diagnostics company Owlstone Medical designed it to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The presence of certain VOCs in a person’s breath can indicate cancer before other symptoms appear.

Image: Owlstone Medical

For the Cancer Research UK-led trial, researchers will direct 1,500 participants to breathe into the device for 10 minutes each. The team is currently on the hunt for participants who have suspected esophageal, stomach, prostate, kidney, bladder, liver, or pancreatic cancer, as well as healthy people to serve as a control group.

Once the researchers have collected those samples, the first step will be figuring out if the device can detect differences between the breath of healthy people and people with cancer. After that, the researchers hope to find out whether the technology can differentiate between various cancer types, with the goal of publishing their research in 2021.

Have you read?

Breathe Easy

This isn’t the first example we’ve seen of a cancer-detecting breathalyzer. However, according to a Cancer Research UK press release, it will be the first trial to “investigate multiple cancer types.”

If the trial goes well, the researchers believe Breath Biopsy could one day become a fixture in the offices of general practitioners, offering them an easy way to screen patients for a variety of cancers.

“There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease,” Owlstone CEO Billy Boyle said in the press release. “The concept of providing a whole-body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need.”

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How One Health can help ease climate-driven health crises

Shyam Bishen

July 15, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum