Technion scientist’s breathalyzer can diagnose early-stage cancer

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The biggest trend in medicine is early detection. Using a mix of more advanced (and cheaper) genetic analysis and technology that can find symptoms sooner, earlier treatments are becoming a larger focus for the medical world. The global preventive medicine market’s value is hard to estimate, but it has tremendous implications for diagnosing early-stage cancer.

Last week, Professor Hasson Haick’s research team at the Technion in Haifa, Israel made the 2015 Nominet Trust 100 list (NT100). It includes 100 different hi-tech projects projected to make a major difference in the world.

It is a prestigious list of awe-inspiring technologies that are truly worthy of so-called “impact investments,” the kind of solutions that could restitch the social fabric for the better.

“We started this project in February 2015 and [it] will be completed within 3.5 years. Currently, we have a preliminary prototype, but we have to validate its performance in the upcoming period of R&D,” Professor Haick said to Geektime.

Haick is an expert in both noninvasive diagnostics and nanotechnology — basically Lex Luthor but with far more benevolence. He’s made MIT’s list of the world’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35 and racked up a slew of honors from several institutions and governments: the Technion’s Hershel Rich Award, the Tenne Prize for Excellence in the Science of Nanotechnology, the Harvey Prize for Applied Science, along with more than 50 others. He leads two other medical technology consortia.

In good company

Fellow listees include the Esko GT, a bionic suit to give full mobility to people in rehab ahead of full recovery; 3D print orthotics — body braces — company Andiamo; ElMindA‘s Brain Network Activation (BNA); open-source decision-making platform DemocracyOS; collaborative language-learning app Busuu; and many, many more. Past listees include Coursera, Bitcoin, and Addex.

A mix of corporate, NGO, and public interest groups are on the NT100 steering committee: Facebook, Salesforce, Creative England, and Oxfam, among others.

Non-invasive diagnostics on the rise

SNIFFPHONE is a breathalyzer test for lung cancer. Its description is absurdly simple but a marvel of ingenuity that has grand implications for public health: It can detect cancer in asymptomatic patients, catching the disease at an early stage. Also, its powers aren’t limited only to lung cancer, but also other lung and neurodegenerative diseases. It’s just one example within the non-invasive cancer diagnostics market, which is set to explode by 2023 according to a report from Transparency Market Research.

Professor Hossam Haick shows off the 4th generation prototype of his tech back in 2013 (video screenshot)
Professor Hossam Haick shows off the 4th generation prototype of his tech back in 2013 (video screenshot)

Early detection of lung cancer demands an exhaustive process of tests and invasive procedures. Many times, patients come into clinics after symptoms have already started to appear. It’s by far the most common cause of cancer-related death, responsible in the U.S. for more than the next three forms of cancer combined.

The SNIFFPHONE detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by lung tumors that actually produce an odor. The larger the tumor, the more noticeable the smell. Small quantities are not recognizable to the naked nose, but with breathalyzer technology known as NaNose (the Nanoscale Artificial NOSE also developed by Professor Haick’s research teams), the SNIFFPHONE has shown an 85% accurate reading thus far for diagnosing cancer with minute amounts of VOC.

While it’s tough to gauge the value of the preventive market, it’s immense judging by a few estimates: 9.65% annual growth of the genetic testing market through 2019, global tissue diagnostics jumping from $3.2 billion to $4.5 billion by 2020, and the general cancer diagnostics market being worth $169 billion by the end of the decade.

Easier lung cancer detection, earlier

“Our devices can detect and classify cancer at the earliest stage,” Haick told Geektime, referring to the results of clinical tests they’ve done. He claims a recent study of about 1,000 breath samples demonstrated the SNIFFPHONE’s ability to detect premalignant lesions, i.e. healthy cells that began mutating into cancerous cells.

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Haick says they have four unnamed industrial partners that are working on manufacturing who “will refine and automate features such as data acquisition, data interpretation, and software integration, making the hand-held add-on device simple to-use.”

Haick has been the head of the consortium developing the SNIFFPHONE, armed with a mere €6 million (£4.4 million) research grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 intercontinental scientific foundation program and some smaller grants.

It is painful how obvious a solution this was yet how impossible it would have been to implement prior to the golden age of nanotechnology. This is definitely a solution that deserves recognition. We should only hope more projects like this catch the eyes of philanthropic investors in our lifetimes.

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