Cancer Research UK has announced that researchers have launched a clinical trial to develop a breath test that could help to find cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

The test would analyse molecules that could indicate the presence of multiple types of cancer at an early stage, the first of its kind to do so.

The trial is being run by the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre in collaboration with Oilstone Medical to test their Breath Biopsy technology, in which breath samples from 1,500 people, including healthy people as trial controls, will be collected to see if odorous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be detected.

Early detection is vital to improving cancer survival, with Cancer Research UK pledging to invest more than £20 million a year in early detection research by 2019.

News of the innovative trial comes after an All.Can initiative found that two in five (40%) cancer patients said that their cancer was diagnosed as something different, either initially or on multiple occasions, and that nearly four in ten (36%) said most inefficiencies occurred during the initial diagnosis phase of their cancer care and treatment.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead trial investigator at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: “We urgently need to develop new tools, like this breath test, which could help to detect and diagnose cancer earlier, giving patients the best chance of surviving their disease.

“Through this clinical trial we hope to find signatures in breath needed to detect cancers earlier – it’s the crucial next step in developing this technology. Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy technology is the first to test across multiple cancer types, potentially paving the way for a universal breath test.”

The trial will begin with patients with suspected oesophageal and stomach cancers and then expand to prostate, kidney, bladder, liver and pancreatic cancers in the coming months.

If the technology proves to accurately identify cancer, the team hope that breath biopsies could in the future be used in GP practices to determine whether to refer patients for further diagnostic tests.