Lung cancer accounts for six per cent of all deaths and 22 per cent of deaths from cancer. Many people cannot be treated as the disease is often too advanced by the time symptoms are diagnosed.
Now experts at Huddersfield University are working on a breathalyser device to detect early signs designed for use by pharmacists to oversee tests.
Rachel Airley, who developed the breath test project and is a former Royal Pharmaceutical Society scientist of the year for her work on breast cancer tumours, said: “The intention is that we will catch patients before they start getting the symptoms.
“Once lung cancer patients start experiencing symptoms it is often very advanced and has a very low cure rate.”
The project has received backing of £105,000 from south-east pharmacy chain SG Court Group, which will carry out initial trials, with match funding from the university.
Dr Airey said the research project would research the signature of lung cancer in breath.
“When you get certain chemicals in someone’s breath, that can be a sign that there is early malignancy,” she said. “We are looking to be able to distinguish between patients with early lung cancer and patients who have maybe got bronchitis, emphysema or non-malignant smoking related disease, or who have maybe just got a cough.”
The development of the breathalyser is part of the trend towards pharmacists playing an increasing frontline role in healthcare.
Dr Airley said: “There are 12,000 community pharmacies in Britain and there is a big move for them to get involved in primary diagnostics, because people visit their pharmacies not just when they are ill but when they are well. A pharmacy is a lot less scary than a doctor’s surgery.
“The idea is to pick up illnesses almost before they happen. Lung cancer is ideal for this because it is often not diagnosed until it there are really serious symptoms.”
She added the device might also be adapted for other hard-to-detect cancers. “We are increasingly looking at non-invasive tests as an alternative to X-rays, imaging and blood tests. As detection methods get more and more sensitive we can pick up things from very easily-taken bodily fluids such as saliva or sputum down to microscopic fragments of tissue, or even single cells.”