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New Study Phase in Development of Pancreatic Cancer Breath Test

UK scientists behind a breath test for detecting pancreatic cancer said they were moving to a next stage of development aimed at determining its accuracy.

Researchers at Imperial College London (ICL), led by Professor George Hanna, are studying how breath samples taken in a GP surgery could flag signs of possible pancreatic cancer, enabling patients to be referred to specialists earlier.

Currently there are no screening or early detection tests for pancreatic cancer, and the disease's vague symptoms, including back pain and indigestion, make it harder to detect than some other cancers. Late detection increases the risk of metastasis, and as a result more than half of people with pancreatic cancer die within 3 months of diagnosis.

Pancreatic Cancer UK has invested £651,836 in the 2-year project to develop a test suitable for use in a GP surgeries. If successful, it would then be taken forward into clinical trials. According to Prof Hanna, the test would be "non-invasive, easy to complete, and universally acceptable to patients", whilst having "great potential to influence clinical practice". He explained: "A positive test would warrant an urgent referral for specialised tests, whereas a negative test would enable the GP to reassure the patient and offer retesting if symptoms persist."

Volatile Organic Compounds

The technology detects specific volatile organic compounds, unique to the type of cancer, that are filtered from blood as they reach the lungs and then breathed out. These are detectable even in patients with early-stage pancreatic cancer, according to the scientists.

The next stage, to be funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK, will help refine the technology and involve researchers collecting and analysing samples from 700 people with and without pancreatic cancer, as well as samples from those with other conditions that affect the pancreas.

The charity has previously funded other work on pancreatic cancer, including through the Early Diagnosis Research Alliance, led by Professor Stephen Pereira at University College London, whose team showed for the first time that biological markers of pancreatic cancer found in the blood could be effectively combined to develop highly sensitive tests for the disease.

Dr Chris MacDonald, head of research at Pancreatic Research UK, said: "Finding an early detection test would make the single biggest difference to pancreatic cancer survival in 50 years. We know that the vast majority of patients will present with early symptoms 2 years before they are diagnosed, so there's a huge window of opportunity there, if we can give GPs the new tools they need." He added: "I really do believe that through this project and others, we are on the cusp of a breakthrough that could save thousands of lives."

According to Cancer Research UK, around 10,500 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the UK, and that could rise to as many as 16,000 by 2038 to 2040. Around 9600 people die with the disease each year in the UK.

Scientists behind the project demonstrated the technology to England's social care minister, Helen Whately, who visited ICL's West London campus on Tuesday. 

The ultimate aim for Prof Hanna is to develop a pan-cancer breath test which could distinguish between the different types of chemicals emitted by different types of gastrointestinal cancers. Prof Hanna's team developed a breath test to diagnose oesophageal and gastric cancer in 2015, before carrying out further work to see if the tests could diagnose other cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, in 2018.