Researchers in Latvia tested an 'electronic nose' using exhaled breath from patients with various lung diseases and found it could correctly spot those with lung cancer in 96% of cases.
If developed successfully, the device could provide a cheap and non-invasive addition to initial blood and urine tests for lung cancer.
The findings were presented at the European Respiratory Society Annual Congress 2013 in Barcelona on Monday.
Studies have shown animals are capable of identifying distinct diseases by smelling breath samples.
Researchers hope to reproduce this ability electronically by detecting volatile organic compounds. These are thought to be released in the presence of certain diseases, although it remains unclear which compounds are linked to each condition.
A team from the University of Latvia tested the device on exhaled breath samples collected from 252 lung cancer patients and 223 patients who had either a different lung disease or were healthy.
There were smokers and non-smokers in both groups. Among smokers, the electronic nose correctly detected 128 with lung cancer and misdiagnosed five people without the disease. In non-smokers, 114 were correctly identified and five misdiagnosed.
Overall, it means the electronic nose had a sensitivity of 96% and a specificity of 91-92%.
Lead author Maris Bukovskis from the university said: 'We have shown that it is possible to use breath tests to correctly identify lung cancer with a high sensitivity rate. The results of our study take us one step further to understanding this important new technology.'