Portable ‘Electronic Nose’ Device Could Detect Esophageal Cancer

“The findings of our study provide evidence that patients with [Barrett's esophagus] have VOC breath prints different from those without.”


A new study published online in the journal Gut has found that portable ‘electronic nose’ can accurately predict esophageal cancer, which is associated with Barrett’s esophagus or Barrett’s syndrome.

Researchers said this type of non-invasive and inexpensive technique could be a promising diagnostic tool for esophageal cancer in primary care.

In the United States, the number of new cases of esophageal cancer has increased six times in the past few decades. Most cases are diagnosed when the cancer is already advanced, making it difficult to treat.

In Barrett’s esophagus, the tissue in the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus) is replaced by tissue similar to the intestinal lining, according to Mayo Clinic. It is associated with an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Typically, the condition is diagnosed using an endoscope, a long flexible tube with a camera on the end, which is expensive and unpleasant for patients. The endoscope makes it unsuitable for screening.

Therefore, experts have been exploring less invasive and inexpensive options, including analysis of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to develop screening tests.

VOCs are gaseous compounds that can be detected in a person’s breath. Our body produces VOCs through metabolic processes, including abnormal cellular activity and inflammation.

Keeping VOCs in mind, the study researchers wanted to see how they could help detect Barrett’s esophagus using a portable electronic nose.

The study conducted on more than 400 adults analyzed subtle differences in VOC patterns using a highly sensitive electronic nose device.

The researchers analyzed the VOC patterns and found that there were significant differences in VOCs among patients with Barrett’s esophagus, acid reflux, and those with a normal esophagus.

The device’s sensitivity was more than 90 percent, which means it was able to pick up Barrett’s esophagus.

“The findings of our study provide evidence that patients with [Barrett’s esophagus] have VOC breath prints different from those without,” the researchers wrote.

However, it is unclear how VOCs indicate changes in cancer cells. They said larger studies are required to validate these findings. They, however, concluded, “Given the high tolerability, high acceptability, and low costs, breath testing may be a promising approach to be used for non-invasive screening for [Barrett’s esophagus] in a primary care setting.”