People suffering with a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus have a higher risk of oesophageal cancer. They are offered a regular monitoring to check for signs of cancer. Barrett’s oesophagus happens when cells in the ‘food pipe’ change as a result of being exposed to digestive acids. These cell changes, known as precancerous, have the ability to spread and could turn cancerous if left untreated. Barrett’s oesophagus usually affects people with a history of experiencing gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (often called GORD).
Currently it can be diagnosed with an endoscopy. But many people with oesophageal cancer have previously never been diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus, meaning that their cancer diagnosis is late, giving them a lower chancer of survival.
Research from the Netherlands may offer hope. They have developed a test where chemicals in the breath (known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs) are identified using sensors in an “electronic nose” with the results being fed into a computer. People with Barrett’s and GORD as well as a healthy control group were tested to see if the computer could recognise the typical patterns of VOCs breathed out by people with Barrett’s oesophagus. They found that in 91% of the time, it correctly identified people with Barrett’s oesophagus and 74% of people who didn’t have it.
The study was carried out by Radboud University Medical Centre, Zeikenhuis Bernhoven and Canisius Wilhelmina Hospital in the Netherlands. The research had no specific funding. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Gut.