It looks as though an advance has been made in the bid to develop breath tests that could detect head-and-neck cancer.

The small study, carried out by researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and published in the British Journal of Cancer, saw breath samples collected from 82 people from three groups: head-and-neck cancer patients, lung cancer patients and healthy people. The team examined the differences in the molecules present in the exhaled breath of each group using “tailor-made detection equipment” called the Nano Artificial NOSE (NA-NOSE).

They found the NA-NOSE was able to distinguish between molecules found in the exhaled breath of head-and-neck cancer patients and healthy volunteers. It also distinguished between lung cancer patients and healthy controls, as well as between the two cancer groups.

Lead researcher Hossam Haick said there is “an urgent need to develop new ways to detect head-and-neck cancer because diagnosis of the disease is complicated, requiring specialist examinations”. It is often diagnosed late, because it lacks specific symptoms and patients often develop a second primary tumour that can affect the entire respiratory system, including the lungs.

Prof Haick added that “we now need to test these results in larger studies to find if this could lead to a potential screening method for the disease.” Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said “these interesting initial results show promise” but stressed that “it’s important to be clear that this is a small study, at a very early stage”.