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A collaboration between the University of Otago, Callaghan Innovation, a British university and a tech company in Christchurch, the technique is to start trials across New Zealand.
Callaghan Innovation principal research scientist Joseph Deere said the non-invasive breathalyser technique could eventually be integrated at a GP level, which would alleviate the stretched resources in colonoscopy bowel screening.
"Basically somebody just breathes into this mask and these tubes or bags collect the breath, and that gets sent to a centralised lab and it gets analysed. And there are particular compounds, we call them biomarkers, which are present — they’ve discovered a whole panel of things that are present in people who have cancer."
Dr Deere said the biomarkers could identify cancer more accurately than current bowel screening tests and home kits which test the amount of blood in the faeces.
"In this test, you detected it [blood] in faeces. So if you have a high amount of haemoglobin in your faeces, it’s an indication that your bowels are being perforated and therefore you’ve got a tumour or something’s not right."
However, it was not a direct indicator that someone had bowel cancer, as there were other ways blood could get into the faeces, he said.
Dr Deere said bowel cancer was commonly picked up in the later stages, but the biomarkers would identify it earlier.
Using this technology would reduce the number of people needing invasive colonoscopies, and decrease the load on stretched resources, he said.
The study comes as a national bowel cancer screening programme is being rolled out across New Zealand.
At least 180,000 people over the age of 60 have been screened since it started in mid-2017 and 400 cancers had been discovered and hundreds of potentially cancerous polyps removed in that time.
However, the programme, combined with greater public awareness, has led to a 45% increase in diagnostic colonoscopies in five years and former president of the Gastroenterology Society Michael Schultz said about 50 more specialists would be needed.
The new technique could give people who had already battled the disease and still required regular screening some hope of earlier detection, without suffering through colonoscopies or painful procedures.
Dr Deere said it had already been trialled in the UK, where thousands of people had been tested over two years.
The key technology used in the breathalyser is designed and made in Christchurch.
It also has the capabilities of identifying other cancers.
Dr Deere said this technology could prove useful for regions such as Southland and South Otago where there were limited resources for bowel screening.
The project is already in discussions with Capital and Coast, and Canterbury District Health Boards, to see where it could fit at a clinical level. — RNZ