Researchers from Italy and The Netherlands have developed an “electronic nose” that appears to be able to tell if someone has Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma (MPM) just from sampling their breath. A report on their study is currently in press but an early issue recently appeared online in the journal Lung Cancer.

The researchers, from the Department of Respiratory Diseases at the University of Bari in Italy, and the Department of Respiratory Medicine in the Academic Medical Centre of thr University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, hope their work shows that the electronic nose, a device they refer to as the Cyranose 320, has diagnostic potential for MPM.

Cyranose 320 analyzes the “breathprint” of volatile organic compounds in the subject’s breath sample.

The researchers found that in at least 80% of cases, the device was able to distinguish people with MPM from healthy individuals and people who had long-term exposure to asbestos but no mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is cancer of the thin membrane lining the chest and abdomen and is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. The disease can take decades to manifest, so by the time it is diagnosed, prognosis and life expectancy is bleak. MPM is the most common type of mesothelioma and affects the lining of the lungs. (Although the study appears in a journal called Lung Cancer, mesothelioma is not a lung cancer).

Diagnosis is normally by thorascopic biopsy, where a thin tube is inserted through an incision into the chest to allow removal of a tissue sample. The procedure is risky in that it can cause a collapsed lung, blood loss, embolism and other problems, particularly in elderly patients.

In this study, the researchers recruited 13 patients with biopsy-confirmed MPM (mean age 61), 13 healthy individuals without asbestos exposure (mean age 52), and 13 people with known long-term certified professional exposure to asbestos but no signs of MPM (mean age 68).

The device showed an 80% accuracy in distinguishing between individuals with MPM and those with long-term asbestos exposure and no MPM, and an 85% accuracy in distiguishing MPM individuals from healthy individuals. The researchers repeated the measurements several times and got the same results.

If this level of success is confirmed by further studies, the researchers said their electronic nose could be developed into a non-invasive, safe tool for diagnosing mesothelioma, thus reducing the risk of complications for patients.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD