A clinical trial has been launched to develop a breath test that could identify multiple types of cancer. The test, which analyses molecules found in the breath and is completely non-invasive, could help in the identification of cancer in its earliest stages when treatment is likely to be most effective.

The trial

Owlstone Medical, which developed the Breath Biopsy technology, is running the PAN Cancer Trial for Early Detection of Cancer in Breath alongside Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge centre.

Breath samples will be collected from a range of participants to see if odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds can be detected.

More than 1,500 people will take part, including healthy people who will act as a control, and patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers.

In the later stages of the trial, people with suspected prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers will also be invited to participate. Patients are being recruited from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, after being referred by their GP with suspected cancers. They will be asked to breathe into the test for 10 minutes to collect a sample. This will then be sent to Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy lab for analysis.


Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, who is lead trial investigator, explained that the aim is to find certain “signatures” in breath that could detect cancers early on when people have the best chance of surviving the disease.

She said that the trial would help to unpick whether cancer signals are the same or different across different forms of the disease and how early on these signals can be identified. Some people in the trial will go on to be diagnosed with cancer and some won’t. The samples of both groups will be compared.

Implications for cancer diagnosis

If the technology is found to be an accurate way of diagnosing cancer in its earliest stages, researchers hope that breath biopsies could be used in the future to identify patients who need further diagnostic testing.

The aim is for breath-based testing to be used by GPs alongside blood and urine testing to provide a whole-body snapshot that is accurate and completely non-invasive.

Patients who at high risk of developing cancers, such as oesophageal cancer, are often subjected to a range of intrusive tests and may not ever go on to develop the disease. Therefore, another non-invasive way of testing that could identify the disease sooner is likely to be welcomed by clinicians and patients.

Early stage diagnosis

Currently, nearly half of all cancers are diagnosed at a late stage in England when the chance of survival is far lower. For this reason, Cancer Research UK has made research into early detection of cancer one of its top priorities and is investing more than £20 million a year in this area. It described the Breath Biopsy trial as “a shining example of Cancer Research UK’s commitment to drive vital progress in shifting cancer diagnosis towards earlier stages.”

If you are worried about symptoms that may indicate bowel or stomach cancer, talk to us about the range of diagnostic testing currently available.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.