What if we could detect diseases without the use of needles, invasive biopsies or scopes?

Medical technology companies are working to make that possible with non-invasive testing like breathomics, a developing diagnostic method that analyzes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or chemicals in the breath indicative of early-stage cancer, inflammation or infection. Those VOCs form particular patterns based on the metabolic activity occurring in the body, which are influenced by various health issues.

When it comes to innovation in the field of breathomics, Owlstone Medical has become a major pioneer.

The company invented Breath Biopsy, which they deem "a breathalyzer for disease."

Once a patient's exhale is obtained, it is captured and stabilized on a Breath Biopsy cartridge and sent to a lab for analysis. During analysis, VOCs of interest are identified.

These compounds are able to detect cancer, inflammatory disease, infectious disease, metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.

“Samples can be pre-enriched simply by taking a longer sample. Even the smallest presence of VOCs at the earliest stages of disease can be captured and analyzed,” said Chris Claxton, Owlstone Medical head of investor relations. “Comparatively, samples such as blood are restricted for volume placing limitations on the sensitivity that is achievable.”

In other words, the limitations of blood testing don't apply to breath samples. They can be taken in various volumes which will never influence the accuracy of the results.

This new form of testing poses what could be a huge stride for healthcare worldwide in addressing two major challenges of modern healthcare: early detection and precision medicine.

With a less-invasive, more consumer-friendly diagnostic method available, testing may become more affordable, more widely embraced, and more effective in identifying illness sooner.

Breathomics may also inform scientists as to which method for treatment will be most effective for a specific person.

Treatment personalization is important because response varies from person to person.

“An estimated $400 billion is wasted every year on therapeutics which are ineffective to certain patient populations,” Claxton said. “There is an urgent and growing need to improve early diagnosis and therapy selection.”

Though the technology is still in early stages. Owlstone Medical is in the midst of a clinical trial in partnership with the National Health Service, UK (NHS) to find differences in detectable chemicals in people with lung cancer versus those without. 

“Lung cancer is a good place to start because the air we breathe directly moves through the lung and past any tumors,” said Max Allsworth, chief scientific officer of Owlstone Medical.

The chemicals in the bodies of patients breath-tested for lung cancer would find their way into the breath less directly, via blood, which exchanges volatile chemicals for air in the lungs. The breath biopsy test wouldn’t be able to communicate the site of the cancer, but it would release a signal that disease had been detected. It’s the starting line for diagnosis.

“In all cases, if there are chemicals in breath that suggest cancer, they will be present very early on, before you are likely to have circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA),” Allworth said. “Our greatest opportunity lies not in developing new drugs but increasing early diagnosis through improved cancer screening.”

Allworth's belief in the power of improved screenings is only reinforced by statistics.

If detected early, over 93% of colon cancer patients can be cured with modern treatments. However, only 9% of patients are diagnosed at this life-saving early stage. Early detection has the greatest potential to save a cancer patient’s life. 

Tackling some of the key challenges facing 21st century healthcare, Owlstone Medical remains dedicated to saving 100,000 lives and $1.5 billion in healthcare costs, per their website.

For now, their greatest focus is completing clinical trials so that breath tests may soon be accessible for all.