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Noninvasive detection of lung cancer by analysis of exhaled breath

Amel Bajtarevic12, Clemens Ager12, Martin Pienz12, Martin Klieber12, Konrad Schwarz12, Magdalena Ligor126, Tomasz Ligor126, Wojciech Filipiak12, Hubert Denz23, Michael Fiegl23, Wolfgang Hilbe4, Wolfgang Weiss5, Peter Lukas5, Herbert Jamnig3, Martin Hackl3, Alfred Haidenberger7, Bogusław Buszewski26, Wolfram Miekisch28, Jochen Schubert28 and Anton Amann12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Operative Medicine, Innsbruck Medical University, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

2 Breath Research Unit of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, A-6850 Dornbirn, Austria

3 Landeskrankenhaus Natters, A-6161 Natters, Austria

4 Univ.-Klinik für Innere Medizin 5 (Hämatologie und Onkologie), Innsbruck Medical University, Anichstrasse 35, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

5 Universitätsklinik für Strahlentherapie-Radioonkologie Innsbruck, Innsbruck Medical University, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

6 Faculty of Chemistry, Nicolaus Copernicus University, PL-87100 Toruñ, Poland

7 Institution of Radio-Oncology, LKH Vöcklabruck, A-4840 Vöcklabruck, Austria

8 Department of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care, University of Rostock, D-18057 Rostock, Germany

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BMC Cancer 2009, 9:348  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-9-348

Published: 29 September 2009



Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Europe and the western world. At present, diagnosis of lung cancer very often happens late in the course of the disease since inexpensive, non-invasive and sufficiently sensitive and specific screening methods are not available. Even though the CT diagnostic methods are good, it must be assured that "screening benefit outweighs risk, across all individuals screened, not only those with lung cancer". An early non-invasive diagnosis of lung cancer would improve prognosis and enlarge treatment options. Analysis of exhaled breath would be an ideal diagnostic method, since it is non-invasive and totally painless.


Exhaled breath and inhaled room air samples were analyzed using proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS) and solid phase microextraction with subsequent gas chromatography mass spectrometry (SPME-GCMS). For the PTR-MS measurements, 220 lung cancer patients and 441 healthy volunteers were recruited. For the GCMS measurements, we collected samples from 65 lung cancer patients and 31 healthy volunteers. Lung cancer patients were in different disease stages and under treatment with different regimes. Mixed expiratory and indoor air samples were collected in Tedlar bags, and either analyzed directly by PTR-MS or transferred to glass vials and analyzed by gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS). Only those measurements of compounds were considered, which showed at least a 15% higher concentration in exhaled breath than in indoor air. Compounds related to smoking behavior such as acetonitrile and benzene were not used to differentiate between lung cancer patients and healthy volunteers.


Isoprene, acetone and methanol are compounds appearing in everybody's exhaled breath. These three main compounds of exhaled breath show slightly lower concentrations in lung cancer patients as compared to healthy volunteers (p < 0.01 for isoprene and acetone, p = 0.011 for methanol; PTR-MS measurements). A comparison of the GCMS-results of 65 lung cancer patients with those of 31 healthy volunteers revealed differences in concentration for more than 50 compounds. Sensitivity for detection of lung cancer patients based on presence of (one of) 4 different compounds not arising in exhaled breath of healthy volunteers was 52% with a specificity of 100%. Using 15 (or 21) different compounds for distinction, sensitivity was 71% (80%) with a specificity of 100%. Potential marker compounds are alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and hydrocarbons.


GCMS-SPME is a relatively insensitive method. Hence compounds not appearing in exhaled breath of healthy volunteers may be below the limit of detection (LOD). PTR-MS, on the other hand, does not need preconcentration and gives much more reliable quantitative results then GCMS-SPME. The shortcoming of PTR-MS is that it cannot identify compounds with certainty. Hence SPME-GCMS and PTR-MS complement each other, each method having its particular advantages and disadvantages. Exhaled breath analysis is promising to become a future non-invasive lung cancer screening method. In order to proceed towards this goal, precise identification of compounds observed in exhaled breath of lung cancer patients is necessary. Comparison with compounds released from lung cancer cell cultures, and additional information on exhaled breath composition in other cancer forms will be important.