Electronic ‘nose’ could be useful in detecting prestage of esophagus cancer

April 2020 Medical Research Willem van Altena
Close up visualization of a smell moving towards a human nose.

More and more digital tools appear on the medical market. These tools can be useful additions to a specialist’s work and save time and money. A recent addition to the ever growing list of technological medical gadgets is e-Nose, a portable electronic ‘nose’ that detects volatile organic compounds. This technology also proves useful in detecting a precancerous stage of esophagus cancer.


Earlier this year, researchers from Radboudumc in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) published findings of a study in Gut magazine into the application of the e-Nose in cancer diagnostics, specifically esophagal cancer. The team, led by dr. Yonne Peters, examined over 400 patients with the electronic device and discovered that the e-Nose can recognize a Barrett esophagus fairly quickly and accurately. Using the e-Nose would mean that a patient can possibly already be diagnosed by his G.P. instead of having to undergo an endoscopy, which is a very unpleasant and costly procedure. A Barrett esophagus is widely seen as a preliminary stage of esophagus cancer, where healthy cells at the bottom end of the esophagus have started to show abnormalities.

Esophagus cancer is a cancer type that seems to be on the rise in recent years, and it offers a bad outlook, because usually the disease isn’t diagnosed until it starts to present symptoms, at which stage the cancer is often found to have advanced too far to be cured. Furthermore, operating on the esophagus –which is in itself a fairly simple organ that’s basically just a tube- is challenging because of its proximity to the windpipe and the aorta.

For these reasons, the Nijmegen research team decided to expand on the diagnostic tools that are available. The e-Nose has been around since 2013 and has already proven its usefulness in detecting lung cancer and colon cancer by analyzing someone’s breath. The volatile organic compounds in exhaled air provide a wealth of knowledge about all kinds of internal processes within the body.

For the study, 402 patients were included, 129 of which has a Barrett esophagus. Another 141 patients suffered from reflux. In 91% of the cases, the e-Nose was able to ‘sniff out’ a Barrett esophagus. The researchers want to scale up their research to a larger group of patients. Should that new research confirm the findings from Nijmegen, it may well be possible that the e-Nose will find its way into many GP practices.

Esophagus cancer in Belgium

According to the Belgian Cancer Register 1.035 Belgians were diagnosed with esophagus cancer in 2017, which makes it the 15th most prevalent cancer in Belgium. The disease affects men three times more than women. This is mostly caused by the fact that men tend to smoke more, and from a younger age, and also consume more alcohol than women. Both habits, as well as obesity, are associated with a higher risk of esophagus cancer. The disease also affects people over 60 much more than younger persons. The five year survival is 24.1%


Read the original article in Gut magazine.

Read in Dutch what website www.kanker.be has to say about esophagus cancer. The French version can be found here.