Review Article

Breath analysis as a diagnostic and screening tool for malignant pleural mesothelioma: a systematic review

Lisa Brusselmans, Lieselot Arnouts, Charissa Millevert, Joyce Vandersnickt, Jan P. van Meerbeeck, Kevin Lamote


Malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) is a tumour related to a historical exposure to asbestos fibres. Currently, the definite diagnosis is made only by the histological examination of a biopsy obtained through an invasive thoracoscopy. However, diagnosis is made too late for curative treatment because of non-specific symptoms mainly appearing at advanced stage disease. Hence, due to its biologic aggressiveness and the late diagnosis, survival rate is low and the patients’ outcome poor. In addition, radiological imaging, like computed tomographic scans, and blood biomarkers are found not to be sensitive enough to be used as an early diagnostic tool. Detection in an early stage is assumed to improve the patients’ outcome but is hampered due to non-specific and late symptomology. Hence, there is a need for a new screening and diagnostic test which could improve the patients’ outcome. Despite extensive research has focused on blood biomarkers, not a single has been shown clinically useful, and therefore research recently shifted to “breathomics” techniques to recognize specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath of the patient as potential non-invasive biomarkers for disease. In this review, we summarize the acquired knowledge about using breath analysis for diagnosing and monitoring MPM and asbestos-related disorders (ARD). Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), the gold standard of breath analysis, appears to be the method with the highest accuracy (97%) to differentiate MPM patients from at risk asbestos-exposed subjects. There have already been found some interesting biomarkers that are significantly elevated in asbestosis (NO, 8-isoprostane, leukotriene B4, α-Pinene…) and MPM (cyclohexane) patients. Regrettably, the different techniques and the plethora of studies suffer some limitations. Most studies are pilot studies with the inclusion of a limited number of patients. Nevertheless, given the promising results and easy sampling methods, we can conclude that breath analysis may become a useful tool in the future to screen for MPM, but further research is warranted.

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