Breath testing for cancer could be rolled out in GP practices within five years

Breath testing for some forms of cancer could revolutionise the accuracy of GP referrals over the next five years, researchers predict.

CT scan showing stomach cancer: The breath test could help reduce referrals for endoscopies (Photo: iStock.com/choja)
CT scan showing stomach cancer: The breath test could help reduce referrals for endoscopies (Photo: iStock.com/choja)

A study presented at a Cancer Research UK conference last week by researchers from Imperial College London found that breath testing was 'feasible and acceptable in primary care' - supporting the possibility of 'large-scale breath testing in clinical practice'.

Research is ongoing to develop the accuracy of breath testing for types of cancer, researchers said. But Imperial College London's head of surgery and cancer Professor George Hanna told GPonline that breath testing in every GP practice - or perhaps every primary care network - in England could be feasible five years from now.

Although recent research has shown that GPs are as good as consultants at referring for cancer in terms of the accuracy of their diagnosis, breath testing has the potential dramatically to improve the accuracy of GP referrals.

Cancer breath tests

Professor Hanna said: 'Breath tests will act as a triage test to direct patients with non-specific symptoms to have endoscopy or scans. This will reduce the number of referrals and unnecessary endoscopies. The impact on the NHS is releasing diagnostic capacity to be used in other priorities and will also save cost.'

Imperial College London researcher Dr Georgia Woodfield, who led a study on the feasibility of breath testing in primary care, said: 'Our endoscopy lists are completely overrun - hospitals I have worked in in London are stuggling to hit targets and keep up with the sheer volume of referrals.'

Breath testing could help pick out patients who need two-week cancer referrals and those who may be able to wait longer, she said.

Professor Hanna said the rollout of breath testing could boost early detection of cancer. He said: 'Appropriate referrals in patients with non-specific symptoms will help cancer detection at an early stage. Cancer-specific symptoms often indicate late stage while early cancer has non-specific symptoms. We should not await until patients develop cancer-warning symptoms before referral for investigations.'

Dr Woodfield's study - the models for assessment of GI cancers (MAGIC) study, looked at 28 GP practices in London. Breath samples were taken between 2016 and 2018, with patients and GPs questioned to assess feasibility and acceptability, and a variety of recruitment and sampling models trialled.

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