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5 June, 2019 - 13:20 By Tony Quested

Owlstone Medical tackles killer asbestos cancer

Owlstone Medical founder Billy Boyle

A disease breathalyser devised in Cambridge is being trialled to counter malignant mesothelioma – an often lethal cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos.

The Breath Biopsy inventor, Owlstone Medical, has partnered with a major building trade union in North America to identify and verify breath-based biomarkers for the early detection of the disease.

For the Cambridge UK business, this is another prime example of gearing the technology to a massively unaddressed market.

The Owlstone alliance is with the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers (IAHFIAW), formerly known as the Asbestos Workers, in the US and Canada, 
Owlstone’s Breath Biopsy® will be used to examine the chemicals found on the breath of individuals with documented historical exposure to asbestos and radiologically and histologically confirmed mesothelioma.

The project will be divided into two phases and is expected to run for three years. It will be financially supported by Heat and Frost Insulators’ Tissue Bank Asbestos Research Charitable Trust nonprofit.

The first phase will focus on identifying volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the breath of individuals diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.

The second will be a blind study to verify the sensitivity, specificity and positive and negative predictive values of selected VOC biomarkers identified in the first phase.

Breath samples will be collected using Owlstone Medical’s ReCIVA® Breath Sampler and will be analysed by their state-of-the-art Breath Biopsy laboratory in Cambridge.

The study will be led by principal investigator Dr Michael R. Harbut, and co-Investigator Dr David Svinarich, Ascension Healthcare's2 VP of Research.

Early detection of malignant mesothelioma is highly challenging, as a long latency period of 40-50 years between first asbestos exposure and disease onset is typical, and symptoms, when present, may be non-specific.

As a result, patient prognosis is poor, with a median survival of nine to 12 months from diagnosis. Although the disease is not common (3,200 new cases a year in the US), the at-risk population is substantial with more than 100 million people in the US alone having been exposed to asbestos fibres and a further 1.3 million American workers in the construction and general industry exposed to asbestos at work each year.

The identification of individuals among this population who are either predisposed to developing malignant mesothelioma or who already have early disease stage, would likely dramatically improve prognosis by limiting disease progression through earlier therapeutic interventions.

Until now, due to the perceived rarity of malignant mesothelioma, little research has been conducted to date on either the early identification or treatment of individuals with disease.

The trade union’s general president, James McCourt said: “The population of those who have been exposed to asbestos and are at risk of having existing early-stage disease or developing malignant mesothelioma later in their lives includes a substantial portion of our membership.

“The long-term health of our members is of primary importance to the IAHFIAW, and we are confident that our partnership with Owlstone Medical will provide significant advances in the early diagnosis of this disease.”

Dr Harbut added that the diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma was typically very late in the course of the disease when surgery was not viable owing to its proliferation and the cancer was less responsive to chemotherapy.

Owlstone Medican founder Billy Boyle commented: “Malignant mesothelioma is a powerful example of an unaddressed medical need where Breath Biopsy has the potential to make a substantial difference.

“Through this partnership, we are looking not only to advance the early diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma, but also to demonstrate that breath-based screening has the potential to have a substantial impact on a wide range of environment-driven disease.”

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