New Breath Test Developed for Colorectal Cancer Screening

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Italian researchers have developed a breath test that shows promise for use in colorectal cancer screening. Although still in the early stages, it's an easy, non-invasive way to screen for this type of cancer.

Scientists at the University of Bari, Aldo Moro focused on the premise that the metabolism of cancer tissue differs from that of healthy cells. Cancerous tissue manufactures some substances that can be identified in patients' breath. Experts refer to them as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), substances that could take current cancer screening to a different level, according to ScienceDaily.

Colorectal cancer is a malignancy that develops in a patient's colon or rectum. Some refer to each type of cancer independently, as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on the origin of the illness. The American Cancer Society states that most colorectal cancers develop slowly, typically over several years.

Most cases begin as a non-malignant polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. The chances of a polyp morphing into cancer depend on the type of polyp. For example, while hyperplastic polyps and inflammatory polyps aren't in general considered pre-cancerous, adenomas are.

According to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, doctors diagnose 147,000 new cases of colorectal cancer annually in the United States. More than 57,000 patients with this condition die every year. Because this cancer is highly treatable in its early stages, regular screenings and early detection are particularly important.

Like many patients with Crohn's disease, I have above-average risk for colorectal cancer. I have this inflammatory disorder in my colon as well as in my small bowel, and I've had the disease for more than 10 years. Fortunately, I am not among the group with the highest risk -- those whose entire colon is affected by the inflammation.

The Italian researchers collected samples of exhaled breath from 37 colorectal cancer patients and 41 healthy subjects to study the VOC profile. They were able to find VOC patterns that identified the cancer patients separately from the control group.

The scientists used a probabilistic neural network (PNN) to identify the pattern of VOCs that better discriminated between the two sets of subjects. After studying 15 of 58 specific compounds in the samples, the team concluded that the colorectal cancer patients had a different selective VOC pattern from that associated with the healthy subjects.

The PNN had an accuracy rate of greater than 75 percent for identifying the cancer patients. Though the technique used for breath sampling is still in an early stage of development, the researchers consider it both very simple and non-invasive.

Because I have also had several adenomas, my current method of surveillance is something nobody loves: a colonoscopy every two years. A simple breath test for colorectal screening would make life much easier for those of us with elevated risk factors.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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