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A new startup company in California called Metabolomx is reporting that a study it conducted with researchers at the Cleveland Clinic shows that its cancer breathalyzer can tell with 83 percent accuracy whether a person has lung cancer, reports Technology Review's Katherine Bourzac. The company also says that the study, published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, shows that the test can tell the difference between different subtypes of lung cancer. "Existing tests for lung cancer … cause too many false positives, which means patients face unnecessary biopsies or exposure to radiation from imaging, and none are currently approved by Medicare," Bourzac adds. "A breath test promises much simpler, safer screening."

The test works by detecting tumor biomarker that can end up in the breath. "In the current version of the system, a patient must breathe through a tube for about five minutes. Pumps draw the breath through a series of filters to dry it out and remove bacteria, then over an array of sensors," Bourzac says. "The sensor array consists of colored reactants that are each sensitive to a different group of volatile compounds. Depending on what's in the sample, different spots in the array — 24 in the version used for the initial clinical trial, 130 in the current one — will change color to varying degrees."

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