A Breath Test to Diagnose Head and Neck Cancer

Heather Mason

September 22, 2020

New research published in the British Journal of Cancer shows that the use of breath analysis for non-invasive diagnosis of early-stage head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) appears to be practical and accurate.

The researchers collected breath samples from 181 patients with suspected HNSCC prior to any treatment. The samples were obtained by asking the patients to take a deep breath in through the nose, followed by a single continuous forced exhalation through the mouth into a sealed bag. This resulted in a mixed alveolar gas sample, which was analysed for volatile organic compounds by mass spectroscopy.

The distinction between cancer and control (benign disease) patients was based on mass spectrometry derived variables, using a binomial logistic regression model.

The results from histopathology revealed that 66 per cent of participants had early-stage primary tumours (T1 and T2) and 58 per cent had regional node metastasis. The optimised logistic regression model had a sensitivity and specificity of 80 and 86 per cent, respectively.

These findings indicate that the predictive ability of a breath test is significantly higher than that reported for clinical symptoms and examination alone, suggesting that raw mass spectra breath analysis for HNSCC has the potential to improve current clinical practice.


Dharmawardana N, Goddard T, Woods C, Watson DI, Ooi EH, Yazbeck R. Development of a non-invasive exhaled breath test for the diagnosis of head and neck cancer. Br J Cancer 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41416-020-01051-9.

This article originally appeared on Univadis.com.


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