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A device to detect cancer based on exhaled air has been created at the University of Warsaw

Lung and breast cancer are the most frequently occurring cancers in men and women respectively. Early detection is crucial for effective treatment.

What if you could check in just a few minutes whether a patient has a medical condition and make decisions about further diagnostics with the help of easy-to-use equipment?

A device made at the Institute of Experimental Physics at the Faculty of Physics of the University of Warsaw allows exactly this.

The apparatus being developed quickly analyses exhaled air, can significantly increase the chances of survival of tens of thousands of patients, as this is the number that die annually due to malignant tumours that were diagnosed too late. However, funding must be obtained for the project to be successful, and the scientists are now seeking it.


For many years, the team of Professor dr hab. Tadeusz Stacewicz from the Division of Optics of the Institute of Experimental Physics at the Faculty of Physics of UW has been conducting research involving the use of lasers to detect biomarkers (biological indicators of medical conditions) in exhaled air. Methods and devices for detecting, among other things, ammonia, have been developed. The presence of ammonia indicates the presence of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, carbon monoxide (in lung diseases), and methane (in digestive problems).


In 2017, the latest research project began. It is focusing on identifying formaldehyde, ethane and other volatile organic compounds excessive amounts of which in exhaled air are associated with cancer, primarily lung and breast cancer. The formal completion of the project is planned for mid-2021.


“A non-invasive, simple, effective and inexpensive device for screening tests could reverse the negative trends related to the incidence of malignant cancer. That’s why for several years, work has been intensified on using laser spectroscopy and other techniques for the detection of biomarkers of serious diseases (including cancer) in exhaled air. Our device would enable the detection of formaldehyde in several minutes. At the same time, its cost shouldn’t exceed the cost of purchasing a dental chair. That’s why it could stand in an internal medicine doctor’s office and be used to conduct screening on a mass scale,” said Professor dr hab. Tadeusz Stacewicz.


Research on detecting formaldehyde and ethane, similarly to earlier studies on detection of biomarkers in exhaled air, is being carried out by the team of Professor dr hab. Tadeusz Stacewicz in collaboration with scientists from the Optical Signal Detection Team at the Institute of Optoelectronics of the Military University of Technology. A sample collection system that meets medical standards is one of the things that have been developed at the Military University of Technology.


“An effective detector of formaldehyde can have applications not only in medicine. A potential area of use is also industry and environmental protection. Formaldehyde is used in, among other things, furniture manufacturing, and since it’s a substance that’s harmful to health, the European Union has announced that it will introduce norms for this compound. If this ends up happening, meters will be needed that will ensure reproducible results and sufficient sensitivity not guaranteed by currently available simple electronic meters,” said dr Robert Dwiliński, director of the Technology Transfer Centre of the University of Warsaw.

Laser: quicker, cheaper and equally effective

Testing exhaled air has enormous potential – substances produced in biochemical processes get into the blood and are then eliminated by the lungs.


“To date, the detection of formaldehyde was only possible using gas chromatography. However, this isn’t the optimal method of detection of this volatile organic compound. The results aren’t always unambiguous. In addition, although gas chromatography is very sensitive, it’s difficult to use in screening tests. Individual tests take approximately 90 minutes and are more expensive, because they require expensive apparatus and a qualified lab technician. Our proposal will be much quicker and cheaper, and able to be used in almost every doctor’s clinic,” said mgr inż. Mateusz Winkowski, a doctoral student at the Division of Optics of the Institute of Experimental Physics of UW, a member of the team of Professor dr hab. Tadeusz Stacewicz.


The test involves collecting a sample of exhaled air from the patient. The device makes measurements based on the weakening of the light intensity of a certain wavelength. The ultra-sensitive measurement methods using lasers allow us to detect volatile organic compounds and to measure their concentrations. The solution decreases the duration of the test to several minutes, thus cutting the costs compared with gas chromatography. The test is, of course, painless and non-invasive.