Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Your breath can tell a lot more about you than whether you brushed your teeth this morning or have been drinking alcohol. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have developed a sensor that can identify telltale chemicals in the breath of people with lung cancer. Lung cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages and difficult to treat when diagnosed in its late stages. Researchers hope that with further development, the breath sensor, an array of chemically sensitive dye spots, will help catch the disease earlier.

Lung cancer causes 160,000 deaths a year in the United States–more than any other cancer. Current diagnostic techniques including CT scans and needle biopsies are invasive and expensive and have a high risk of complications, says Peter Mazzone, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “We need an easy-to-use test for finding early-stage lung cancer,” he says.

Some of the products of metabolism, called volatile organic compounds, are carried in the breath and can serve as biomarkers. Cancer cells make different groups of these volatile compounds than normal cells do. Researchers have known since the mid-eighties that these differences can be detected on lung-cancer patients’ breath using a combination of gas chromoAtography and mass spectrometry. But Mazzone says applying these sophisticated analytical techniques to cancer diagnosis is expensive–it requires trained technicians and large machines–and they have not proved accurate enough for clinical use.

The Cleveland lung-cancer sensor is a disposable piece of paper called a colorimetric array. The paper has 36 chemically sensitive dye spots that change color when they interact with compounds in the breath. Changes in color are read by a flatbed scanner, which sends the images to a computer for analysis.

In a proof-of-principle study, Cleveland Clinic researchers analyzed the breath of 143 patients, some healthy, some known to have lung cancer, and some with other lung diseases. Patients breathed into a machine that kept their exhalations at body temperature and circulated them over the sensing array. The doctors modeled the patterns of color changes in the sensor array characteristic of lung cancer, then used the model to try to detect lung cancer in the remaining patients.

2 comments. Share your thoughts »

Credit: Courtesy of the Cleveland Clinic

Tagged: Biomedicine, cancer, sensor, diagnostics

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me