Owlstone has developed a handheld breathalyser which can detect early stage lung cancer. The low-cost, non-invasive test has the potential to be used in national screening programmes and primary care settings, to diagnose lung cancer at an early stage and transform survival rates, potentially saving the NHS £245 million within three years.

Early detection of lung cancer has a dramatic impact on survival: with a stage 1 diagnosis, 75 out of 100 people will recover fully; at stage 4, the survival rate drops to just 5 in 100. But in the absence of a screening test, only 15% of patients in the UK are diagnosed at an early stage. Life expectancy is among the lowest for any cancer.

Owlstone co-founder Billy Boyle has personal experience of the devastating impact of a late stage cancer diagnosis, having lost his wife to colon cancer in 2014. This life-changing event was the trigger for the company’s Lung Cancer Indicator Detection (LuCID) project. Their goal was to repurpose the chemical sensing microchip technology they had originally developed to ‘sniff out’ explosives, into a breathalyser tool for early detection of lung cancer.

“Early detection of cancer saves lives, so we need to find non-invasive, quick and cost-effective ways to screen people. Our lung cancer breathalyser ticks all of these boxes and has the potential to save 10,000 lives and the NHS £245 million within three years of launch. My vision is for the lung cancer breathalyser to be used in a national screening programme, as well as in GP surgeries when patients first present with worrying symptoms, so that more people have the best possible chance of surviving lung cancer.”

Billy Boyle, Co-founder, Owlstone Inc

Supported by SBRI funding, the Owlstone team began reprogramming the microchip software to detect chemical biomarkers found in the breath of people who have lung cancer. They also collaborated with researchers and designers from across Europe to design user-friendly breathalyser hardware, which has been open sourced to academics in the Eastern area. Eastern AHSN were also able to connect the company to NHS organisations who wanted to trial and test their diagnostic.

Following successful lab-based trials, Owlstone is now working with NHS partners to validate the sensitivity and effectiveness of the LuCID breathalyser in clinical settings which include Papworth Hospital, University College London and University Hospital of Leicester. Between late 2015 and summer 2016, the breathalyser will be used with 600 patients who have been referred to secondary care with suspected lung cancer. Each patient will use the breathalyser before undergoing routine diagnostic tests such as chest x-rays and CT scanning.

  • Laboratory testing has shown that Owlstone’s chemical sensor can detect all 12 lung cancer biomarkers at concentrations well below those found on the breath of people who have stage 1 lung cancer – suggesting that the sensor is sensitive enough to detect lung cancer at an early stage.
  • The LuCID breathalyser is simple to use and produces a result in just 30 seconds, with a green light indicating a clear sample and a red light indicating the detection of lung cancer markers. As a non-invasive and low-cost test, it has the potential to be used in a national screening program, resulting in much higher early detection rates.
  • Using the breath test in a national screening program would lead to around 1.3 million tests being carried out each year, at an estimated cost of around £15 per test.
  • The design for the breath sampling hardware has been made freely available to all researchers working in the field of breath-based diagnostics.

Following the initial trial of the LuCID breathalyser in the NHS, Owlstone will be looking ahead to larger-scale trials that will build evidence of their product’s effectiveness as a screening tool for lung cancer. EAHSN will work with the Clinical Research Network to assist in this process.

Owlstone is also working with researchers around the world to find new ways in which its chemical sensing technology can support early diagnosis of different types of cancer and conditions such as tuberculosis and coeliac disease. The microchip can be programmed to analyse samples of bodily fluids as well as breath samples.

In February 2016 the Owlstone team secured SBRI funding to develop a breathalyser test that can identify which asthma medication a patient needs, so they get the right treatment first time.

© Eastern AHSN