Cancer Research UK and Owlstone Medical are going into the trail phase of researching this ground breaking cancer identification tool. They are working together to develop a breathalyser that can detect cancer by analysing the molecules in an individual’s breath.

We really hope that they are benefiting from the additional funding available through R&D tax credits. They could be in either the Professional, Scientific and Technical, or Health and Social Care sector in terms of R&D tax credits. It would be great if their claim is nearer the £71,649 average of the former, rather than the £34,483 of the latter. What really matters is that they are definitely pursuing a “scientific or technological advance” and must overcome uncertainties to reach a workable conclusion.

How does the breathalyser cancer test work?

There are molecules in the air called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Different cells in our bodies produce a variety of these VOCs as they metabolise. This is part of the normal functioning of our internal systems. These VOCs move into our lungs and are in our breath as we exhale. The working theory behind the new test is that the presence of cancer in the body changes the make-up of VOCs.

The Breath Biopsy Device will collect the VOC molecules which can then be analysed in a laboratory and a determination about the regularity of their patterns can be made.

The PAN Cancer Trial For Early Detection of Cancer

The scientists involved in developing the breathalyser unit are now at the trial phase. This will be run at Cambridge’s Addenbrooke Hospital for two years. They will test 1,500 people, some of them will be considered healthy and some will already have a cancer diagnosis. All they have to do is breathe into the device for 10 minutes.

To begin with, the trials are going to focus on stomach and oesophageal cancers. Then they will extend the trail to include pancreatic, liver, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers.

One of the leading scientists on the project is from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre. As reported in the i paper, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald 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.”

Why is this type of detection device important?

There are three main positives to the development of this kind of cancer detection device. Firstly, for the patient it is completely non-invasive, doesn’t require anaesthetic and so already much less frightening. Secondly, this could be a much quicker method of detection. This could save thousands of lives simply because patients are treated more speedily. Finally, this type of device has the potential to save the NHS millions of pounds in other more costly tests and long term healthcare costs as patients receive treatment more quickly.

Chief Executive of Owlstone Medical, Billy Boyle, told the i paper: “There is increasing potential for breath-based tests to aid diagnosis, sitting alongside blood and urine tests in an effort to help doctors detect and treat disease, The concept of providing a whole body snapshot in a completely non-invasive way is very powerful and could reduce harm by sparing patients from more invasive tests that they don’t need. Our technology has proven to be extremely effective at detecting OVCs in the breath, and we are proud to be working with Cancer Research UK as we look to apply it towards the incredibly important area of detecting early-stage disease in a range of cancers in patients.”

Not entirely new technology

The technology behind the breathalyser detection device is not a sudden new invention and it is not unique to Britain. Progress has grown over several years and some findings have already been confirmed by a team of scientists from the Swedish Karolinka Institute and Imperial College London. Their results found an 80% success rate for detecting oesophagus and stomach cancers in already diagnosed patients. And the same 80% success rate in identifying people without these types of cancers.

In terms of accessing R&D tax credits, the fact that the current trails are building on existing technology has no bearing whatsoever. There must be many individual elements to the development of such a complex diagnostic system; from the actual physical device, to the laboratory analysis and all the elements inbetween. Increasing the rate of accuracy must be of paramount concern. All of these details will be considered and all of them are relevant to an R&D Tax Credit claim.

The costs of physical materials, paying their clinical trial volunteers, staff and software are all applicable in this situation. Whilst the painstaking attention to detail requires dedicated patience, this must be an extremely exciting, rewarding area of R&D to work in. We look forward to hearing the results of these trials in 2021 and wish them every success.


Jamie Smith