Could early cancer detection be a simple bathroom break away? That's the hope of a group of British researchers who say they have created a device to recognize and identify indicators of bladder cancer in a urine sample.
Developed by researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of the West of England (UWE) Institute of Biosensor Technology, the Odoreader device is designed to analyze chemicals in urine and return results within 30 minutes. A sensor in the device essentially "smells" for specific chemicals that indicate the presence of cancer cells.
"It is thought that dogs can smell cancer, but this is obviously not a practical way for hospitals to diagnose the disease," Professor Norman Ratcliffe of the Institute of Biosensor Technology at UWE Bristol, said in a statement released by the University of Liverpool. "Taking this principle, however, we have developed a device that can give us a profile of the odor in urine. It reads the gases that chemicals in the urine can give off when the sample is heated."
Most doctors currently feel a cystoscopy procedure is the most effective way to identify bladder cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. An invasive procedure, a cytoscopy requires a doctor to examine the patient's bladder using a flexible fiber-optic camera, which is inserted through the urethra. If the doctor feels further investigation is warranted, a biopsy will generally be conducted in a laboratory to try to confirm evidence of cancer cells. The Odoreader could simplify this process, making diagnoses quicker and less invasive.
Researchers have spent four years working on the Odoreader, according to U.K.-based local news outlet The Bristol Post, and so far it seems to be acing its trial runs.
In a study published July 8 by scientific journal PLoS One, the authors -- including UWE Bristol's Professor Ratcliffe -- reported that the Odoreader was 96 percent accurate in diagnosing bladder cancer in a small, male-only sample size. The authors wrote hopefully about the device while acknowledging that broader studies must be conducted:
These data are an improvement on those reported by other groups studying headspace gases and also superior to current clinical techniques. This new device shows potential for the diagnosis of bladder cancer, but the data must be reproduced in a larger study.
Dr. Sarah Hazell, senior science communication officer at Cancer Research UK, echoed the call for more work to be done on the "promising" Odoreader research.
"This latest method is still at an early stage of development, and needs to be tried out on a much larger set of samples, including samples from both women and men," Hazell told the BBC. "But it is another promising step towards detecting bladder cancer from urine samples, something that would ultimately provide a less invasive means of diagnosing the disease."
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 72,570 cases of bladder cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2013. Of those, more than 15,000 will likely die.