Breath analysis and cancer

I love mass spectrometry

As you know I LOVE Mass Spectrometry. In previous posts I told you what mass spectrometry is, how I use it to analyze coffee and how it was used in breath analysis to follow the menstrual cycle.

Today, I want to explain how mass spectrometry, in particular PTR-MS, was used in cancer research.

Scientists can smell cancer!

In 2007 Wehinger and collaborators published a paper on the use of PTR-MS to detect lung cancer. Researchers analyzed the breath of 17 primary lung cancer patients, 35 healthy hospital personnel, 25 healthy individuals and 60 healthy and smokers people. They found two markers that discriminates correctly between lung cancer patients and all the healthy individuals (even the smokers).

In 2009 Bajtarevic and collaborators studied the breath of 220 lung cancer patients and 441 healthy individuals. They identified three markers, which are able to distinguish cancer patients from healthy people.

10 years later, in 2019, Sun and collaborators studied the breath of 20 adenocarcinoma lung cancer patients, 10 squamous cell carcinoma lung cancer patients and 30 healthy people. They found 5 characteristic VOCs in adenocarcinoma lung cancer patients and 3 in squamous cell carcinoma lung cancer patients. The study shows that not only PTR-MS can be used to distinguish between healthy individuals and lung cancer patients, but also among different types of lung cancer.

In 2016 Zou and collaborators analyzed the breath of 29 esophageal cancer patients and 57 healthy people. They identified 7 VOCs who can be used as markers to distinguish cancer patients from healthy people. What is interesting is that VOCs can identify cancer patients also when they are in stage I. Often people are diagnosed at stage II or III when the symptoms become severe.

These kind of analysis could become a powerful tool for non-invasive screening and diagnosis of early stage cancer patients.

Thank you SCIEX for the amazing notebook, #ILoveMassSpec


Bajtarevic et al., “Noninvasive detection of lung cancer by analysis of exhaled breath”, (2009), 10.1186/1471-2407-9-348

Sun et al., “Analysis of volatile organic compounds from patients and cell lines for the validation of lung cancer biomarkers by proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometry”, (2019),

Wehinger et al., “Lung cancer detection by proton transfer reaction mass-spectrometric analysis of human breath gas”, (2007),

Zou et al., ” Exhaled gases online measurements for esophageal cancer patients and healthy people by proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry”, (2016), doi:10.1111/jgh.13380

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