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Trial success for liver disease breath test

Addenbrooke's patients have been involved in a trial to develop a breath test for diagnosing liver disease - with the technology also being adapted to detect cancer.

Breath test trial for liver disease
The technology is being developed to spot early signs of liver disease but is also being developed to detect cancer.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) are leading global causes of chronic liver disease.

Around one in four adults develop NAFLD in their lifetimes with approximately 20% of those progressing to NASH.

Having a liver biopsy has long been the gold standard to test for liver disease, however it is costly, invasive, and can have serious complications, making it unsuitable for broad use in screening for disease.  

To address this need, Cambridge based company Owlstone Medical is developing a non-invasive, easy to use breath test that can be taken in primary care settings for the diagnosis of advanced NASH.

Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald

This is an important step forward in developing a new way to spot the early signs of disease, including cancer.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald

The paper published this week is part of Owlstone’s Cancer Research UK funded PAN-study carried out with Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH).

The study identifies a set of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can identify patients with liver disease and separate them based on severity.

Samples were collected from 46 CUH patients with advanced liver disease and compared with 42 healthy patients to identify VOCs that differ significantly between the groups and which appear to be driven by impairment of liver function.

From this, a model with strong correlation to disease severity was generated that holds great promise for liver disease detection and monitoring. 

The ultimate aim of creating non-invasive breath tests is to support early detection and precision medicine of diseases including cancer, asthma, COPD and liver disease.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald is one of the authors on the paper and the director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge .

She said:

'We have been very pleased to work with Owlstone Medical to deliver this important trial – simple tests such as a breath test which are easy and convenient for patients could transform the way we diagnose disease including cancer."

CEO Billy Boyle
Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical

Following this additional excellent work by our internal team and external collaborators, we are pleased to be able to report this expanded set of VOCs.

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical

Billy Boyle is an engineering graduate from the University of Cambridge and one of the original co-founders of Owlstone Inc.

Billy started to focus on the medical applications of FAIMS technology after his wife Kate was diagnosed and later died of colon cancer as a result of a late diagnosis. He said:

"Previously we demonstrated the potential of limonene as a biomarker for liver disease severity, however liver disease is complex and comprehensive evaluation of liver function is not possible from a single biomarker.

"Now, following this additional excellent work by our internal team and external collaborators, we are pleased to be able to report this expanded set of VOCs, many of which are of exogenous origin and so may be suitable for development into EVOC probes."

Owlstone Medical
Owlstone Medical is based in Cambridge.

This study has been resourced by Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, the CRUK Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED Clinic Cambridge) and the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Patients were recruited from the clinical research facility at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Cambridge BioResource.

Following further trials and development, it's hoped the breath test will be available in the next few years to help diagnose liver disease.