Mesothelioma diagnosis as it stands today is only possible very late in the development of this illness. The inability to detect mesothelioma earlier is part of what makes mesothelioma such a devastating diagnosis. Because it can take decades for mesothelioma symptoms to emerge, by the time a mesothelioma diagnosis is made, it has often progressed to a stage that is more advanced than is optimal for treating cancer. Although intensive treatment with chemotherapy and/or surgery can prolong life, the rounds of chemotherapy and radiation can take a toll on the quality of life.
As things are now – and have been for decades – when a mesothelioma diagnosis is made, it means the disease is usually both unmistakable and incurable. Because there are no reliable early tests to determine a mesothelioma diagnosis, important time is lost without even knowing the disease is present and causing irreversible damage. Clearly a top priority for mesothelioma research science is to develop a way to catch mesothelioma as early as possible. We therefore applaud any successful steps to finding an earlier mesothelioma diagnosis test.
Early Mesothelioma Diagnosis Could Be Just A Breath Away
Now a group of scientists from Belgium’s Antwerp University Hospital and Ghent University suggest the possibility that a breath test could be a way to offer early mesothelioma diagnosis. What’s more, the researchers highlight in their new article published in Oncotarget, “Biomarkers for early diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma: Do we need another moonshot?” that a breath analysis test would be easy to administer, non-invasive and cost effective.
Currently when mesothelioma symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue occur, they could be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses. There is no way to be absolutely certain whether it is mesothelioma or just the flu without a battery of tests that can include biopsies and medical imaging. No one likes getting poked with needles or going through an MRI scan. It is possible that even if mesothelioma symptoms are present, people may delay getting tested and diagnosed to avoid the discomfort of testing. Especially if they do not recall ever being exposed to asbestos, the only known cause of mesothelioma.
Also, these kinds of tests that involve the use of major hospital equipment like MRI scanners can be very expensive. Insurance companies are likely to balk at paying for having these types of tests given to apparently healthy and symptomless people because they say they have been exposed to asbestos at one point in their lives. Although exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma. But it is like playing Russian roulette – there is no way to know and the results can be lethal.
So the development of a simple low-cost early diagnostic test for mesothelioma that involved breath analysis has great potential to save lives.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis Needs a “Moonshot” Approach, Researchers Say
Mesothelioma diagnosis at present continues to elude the holy grail of early detection. Today we are all familiar with standard early detection tests such as mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colon cancer and psa tests for prostate cancer. Early detection at present is the best hope against beating cancer. The cancer is likely to be in an earlier stage with smaller tumors that are more easily removed and likely has not spread or metastasized to other areas of the body.
Because no early detection tests exist for a mesothelioma diagnosis, these Belgian researchers decided to brainstorm about it. It is important to note that their interesting and exciting new published article is not a clinical trial. Nothing was tested. There were no volunteer mesothelioma patients or laboratory animals. Or even cells in Petri dishes. Hopefully that will follow this initial report.
What these researchers have presented now is a very wonderful new idea. To support their idea, they carefully combed through the scientific literature already published in this area. They pulled together key information to make a case for why a breath analysis test for early mesothelioma diagnosis would work.
This is an important first step. The next steps needed are to translate this research into testing and re-testing to determine whether this idea will hold up when tried on real people in clinical trial settings.
“Rigorous studies on large patient cohorts and appropriate controls will determine the clinical validity and utility of breathomics in the diagnosis of mesothelioma,” the researchers state. 
The researchers call for a “moonshot” approach to advance this idea along. They refer to a program announced in the U.S. during the Obama administration to move forward more quickly with cancer treatment testing. The Cancer Moonshot program was championed by then Vice-President Joseph Biden after his 46 year-old son Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015. However although at this time the current administration is likely to eliminate this program and, as the media terms it, turn the Moonshot into a crater, cancer research progress will continue.
Breathomics and Biomarkers As the Future of Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Mesothelioma diagnosis could receive the updating it very much needs if these researchers are correct in suggesting that the use of breath analysis could become a diagnostic tool. Breath analysis for medical purposes is technically known as breathomics.
Breathomics is defined as the study of exhaled air. It is a rapidly evolving research field that mainly focuses on health-related compounds that can be identified through the detection of their presence in exhaled breath. A simple form currently in use is the breathalyzer tests police give to someone they suspect of drunk driving to check for alcohol in their exhaled breath.
In medical testing of exhaled breath, if any compounds detected are connected to a disease or health condition, they are called “biomarkers.” A biomarker is measurable substance whose presence indicates something is going on with the body – a disease, infection, environmental exposure or other kind of change.
Think of the pregnancy tests women can buy to use at home. If the stick turns a specific color when dipped in urine it means that hormones associated with pregnancy are present. The hormones are a biomarker for pregnancy.
The researchers are convinced that biomarkers for mesothelioma can be detected through breath analysis at an early stage of the disease.
“This method seems very promising in the early detection of diverse malignancies, because exhaled breath contains valuable information on cell and tissue metabolism,” they say. “We believe a breathomics-based biomarker approach should be further explored to improve the follow-up and management of asbestos exposed individuals.”
We at Mesothelioma Circle agree and hope to see studies testing this intriguing and much-needed idea.