Mesothelioma is a rare, deadly cancer that affects thousands of individuals in the United States each year. It is a malignant tumor that invades either the lungs, abdomen, or heart. There is not a cure for mesothelioma at this time, and the average life expectancy after a formal diagnosis is 12 months. However, the future for mesothelioma patients may not be so grim. A new breath test has been studied for years and is currently being developed to detect early mesothelioma.
Early Diagnosis is Rare
As with any cancer, early diagnosis is key. Early detection of mesothelioma can provide for a better prognosis and prompt treatment. Since mesothelioma is one of the deadliest cancers, it is crucial to develop new tools that can provide for early detection. However, early detection of malignant mesothelioma has proven to be very challenging. Most diagnoses are not confirmed until the last two stages when it is too late to offer effective treatment.
Misdiagnosis of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is commonly misdiagnosed. The cancer is so rare that many doctors do not initially suspect it. Early detection is difficult for two reasons: the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are very similar to other diseases, and physicians are often unaware of the patient’s history of exposure to asbestos. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (lungs) include a dry cough, fever, chest pain/tightness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Early-stage pleural mesothelioma is most commonly misdiagnosed as some of the following:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
All of the above conditions share similar symptoms to early-stage mesothelioma, including chronic cough, wheezing, excessive mucus production, difficulty breathing, chest pain, fever, and fatigue. It is always best to obtain a second opinion as to whether or not you may have mesothelioma. It is worthwhile to seek a mesothelioma specialist to confirm a diagnosis and get started on the right treatment. Early detection measures could decrease the chances of misdiagnosis, and the studies have shown promising results.
A Simple Breath Test as a Powerful Screening Tool
It is hard to believe that a breath test could not only detect mesothelioma early on but also identify those who may be predisposed to later developing cancer. Testing for biomarkers of cancer in blood and lung fluid has not been effective. Currently, Owlstone Medical, a UK-based diagnostics company, has teamed with the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers (IAHFIAW) to detect and confirm breath biomarkers to identify malignant mesothelioma.
Owlstone’s Breath Biopsy technology will consist of a three-year, two-phase project. It will use its breath technology to examine chemicals found in the breath of individuals who have been exposed to asbestos and who have been formally diagnosed with mesothelioma. The study will be head by Principal Investigator Dr. Michael Harbut and co-investigator Dr. David Svinarich.
The study’s first phase will concentrate on finding volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the breath of patients diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. The second phase will involve a blind study to validate the specificity, sensitivity, and positive and negative predictive values of the selected VOC biomarkers discovered in the first phase. The breath samples will be collected using Owlstone’s ReCIVA Breath Sampler, where it will then be examined in their cutting-edge Breath Biopsy laboratory located in Cambridge, UK.
The research project in Cambridge will include 1,500 individuals consisting of patients with cancer and healthy individuals. The subjects will be asked to breathe into the Breath Biopsy apparatus for ten minutes, where it collects and stores the VOC data. The researchers will start with individuals who are suspected of having stomach or esophageal cancer, and then the researchers will compare those findings with other VOC data to develop patterns.
The leaders of the study hope to revolutionize the early detection of mesothelioma. Director of the study and internationally known Dr. Mark Harbut reaffirmed the importance of a breath test in a recent press release, “[t]he diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma is typically very late in the course of the disease when surgery is not viable owing to its proliferation, and the cancer is less responsive to chemotherapy. To change this, reliable diagnostic tests that enable the earlier detection of malignant mesothelioma in at-risk populations are badly needed.”
Billy Boyle, CEO and co-founder at Owlstone added, “[m]alignant mesothelioma is a powerful example of an unaddressed medical need where Breath Biopsy has the potential to make a substantial difference. Through this partnership, we are looking not only to advance the early diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma but also to demonstrate that breath-based screening has the potential to have a substantial impact on a wide range of environment-driven disease.”
The alliance is hopeful through its Breath Biopsy to significantly improve the mesothelioma patient’s prognosis through earlier treatment interventions. Similar to any diagnostic tool, the breath test will need to be accurate and sensitive to avoid any false positives or misdiagnoses.
How the Breath Biopsy Could Detect Cancer “Signature”
Cancer triggers biochemical changes in the body, and the changes yield volatile organic compounds that a person exhales. Theoretically, various types of cancer produce multiple combinations of volatile organic compounds. The Breath Biopsy measures the compounds generated to determine which type of cancer produced them. The idea is that such a breathalyzer technology will be able to identify a positive mesothelioma “signature.”
The study is a clinical trial, so its true potential remains unknown until the initial results come in. Conversely, the study of breath tests is not new. Researchers have conducted studies indicating breath test could potentially detect lung cancer, along with other diseases.
For instance, one study conducted in 2012 found, “[s]mell prints from 10 new malignant mesothelioma patients were distinguished from control subjects with an accuracy of 95%. Patients with malignant mesothelioma, asbestos-related diseases, and control subjects were correctly identified in 88% of cases.” The study confirmed that the volatile organic compound could accurately differentiate between patients with malignant mesothelioma, asbestos-related diseases, and controls, which they concluded could “…eventually translate into a screening tool for high-risk populations.”
A 2017 European study found that one breath test was 100% accurate at detecting mesothelioma. The same technique precisely ruled out mesothelioma 91% of the time. However, the study of breathomics is still being refined, and more research must be conducted before anything definitive is implemented into routine screening procedures.
Benefits of a Mesothelioma Breath Test
There are many advantages to mesothelioma breath tests. A breath test is less invasive and virtually painless. Patients are more likely to come in for a test if there is not a needle or other intimidating device involved. The test would be quick, convenient, and cheaper than the alternative.
In closing, mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer. There are a little over 3,000 new mesothelioma cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Clinical trials, such as the ongoing Breath Biopsy from Owl Medical, is a positive step in the future with hopes to tackle mesothelioma and the devastation it brings. Earlier detection of mesothelioma improves the chances of survival. New trials are conducted throughout the world, and this is one of many that could lead to finding the cure to malignant mesothelioma.