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Non-invasive Cancer Detection Using Volatile Biomarkers: Is Urine Superior To Breath?

R. Becker
Published 2020 · Medicine

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In recent years numerous reports have highlighted the options of chemical breath analysis with regard to non-invasive cancer detection. Certain volatile organic compounds (VOC) supposedly present in higher amounts or in characteristic patterns have been suggested as potential biomarkers. However, so far no clinical application based on a specific set of compounds appears to exist. Numerous reports on the capability of sniffer dogs and sensor arrays or electronic noses to distinguish breath of cancer patients and healthy controls supports the concept of genuine cancer-related volatile profiles. However, the actual compounds responsible for the scent are completely unknown and there is no correlation with the potential biomarkers suggested on basis of chemical trace analysis. It is outlined that specific features connected with the VOC analysis in breath - namely small concentrations of volatiles, interfering background concentrations, considerable sampling effort and sample instability, impracticability regarding routine application - stand in the way of substantial progress. The underlying chemical-analytical challenge can only be met considering the severe susceptibility of VOC determination to these adverse conditions. Therefore, the attention is drawn to the needs for appropriate quality assurance/quality control as the most important feature for the reliable quantification of volatiles present in trace concentration. Consequently, the advantages of urine as an alternative matrix for volatile biomarker search in the context of diagnosing lung and other cancers are outlined with specific focus on quality assurance and practicability in clinical chemistry. The headspace over urine samples as the VOC source allows adapting gas chromatographical procedures well-established in water analysis. Foremost, the selection of urine over breath as non-invasive matrix should provide considerably more resilience to adverse effects during sampling and analysis. The most important advantage of urine over breath is seen in the option to partition, dispense, mix, spike, store, and thus to dispatch taylor-made urine samples on demand for quality control measures. Although it is still open at this point if cancer diagnosis supported by non-invasively sampled VOC profiles will ultimately reach clinical application the advantages of urine over breath should significantly facilitate urgently required steps beyond the current proof-of-concept stage and towards standardisation.
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