Data from a trial testing an 'electronic nose' suggests that the device could provide a cheap and non-invasive method for detecting lung cancer.

The findings were presented at the European Respiratory Society congress in Barcelona by Maris Bukovskis from the University of Latvia. His team collected exhaled breath samples from 252 lung cancer patients, 223 patients with different lung diseases and healthy volunteers and 265 non-smokers and 210 smokers.

The researchers found that in non-smokers, the electronic nose correctly identified 128 as having lung cancer and only misdiagnosed five people who did not have cancer. In the group of smokers, the device correctly identified 114 people as having the disease and misdiagnosing five.

Dr Bukovskis said the results “take us one step further to understanding this important new technology”. However he noted that the major problem with the electronic nose is that it is individual “and each piece of equipment must be trained to distinguish between odours”.

He went on to say that this causes a problem of standardising the results “and the next step will be to test the practice between different centres to help us think about how we can ensure consistency between all the results”.

Current tests for lung cancer include blood and urine tests, followed by CT scans and chest radiographs, an expensive and lengthy process. However, Dr Bukovskis told journalists at an ERS briefing that the nose is cheap, easy to use, non-invasive and accurate, as well as quick.

Previous research has shown that animals are capable of detecting diseases based on breath tests and the electronic nose technology tries to replicate this by detecting different profiles of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breath samples. At the briefing, another expert in the technology, Paul Brinkman from the University of Amsterdam said that widescale use of the device in detecting lung cancer is some way away, up to ten years.