AI used to detect lung cancer in breath samples
April 7, 2021
MONCTON, N.B. – As a result of the AI and machine learning expertise of a University of New Brunswick biomedical engineering Master’s student, biotech firm Picomole Inc. has developed a first-of-its-kind screening tool that makes lung cancer detection possible by breathing into a tube. The innovation is expected to be commercialized as early as 2023.
Robyn Larracy (pictured), 23, is working with Picomole with funding support from national innovation organization Mitacs to develop advanced AI models capable of identifying features in breath – called biomarkers – that indicate the presence of lung cancer with a high degree of accuracy.
Her work marks the first time machine learning is being combined with this method of breath analysis, and is considered a game-changer in healthcare.
“Each year, more Canadians die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined, in part because there’s a large, unmet need for non-invasive lung cancer screening at the early stages,” said Picomole CEO Stephen Graham. “With Mitacs’ support, we’ve obtained the valuable machine learning expertise we need to advance our technology to the next level, and we’re now poised to make a huge difference,” he added.
The current gold standard for lung cancer screening is a low-dose CT scan, which is both cost-prohibitive and difficult to administer on a wide scale because it requires expensive machinery operated by skilled technicians. As a result, the majority of lung cancer cases go undetected until symptoms present at later stages, leading to a five-year survival rate of less than 18 percent.
By providing an effective, affordable, and accessible breath-based cancer screening tool, Picomole expects to increase that survival rate to 55 percent or better through early detection, Graham said. “You just breathe into a tube and the sample gets sent off for testing,” he said.
Picomole’s patented technology has three parts. The first is a device about the size of a microwave that collects breath samples in slim, stainless steel canisters by simply having people blow into a mouthpiece.
The second is a spectrometer that processes and measures the amount of light absorbed by organic compounds found in the breath samples to provide unique digital breath fingerprints. Hundreds of biomarkers are provided for each sample collected.
The third is the machine learning software that analyzes the digital output from the spectrometer to identify the presence of disease.
Working under the supervision of UNB associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Erik Scheme at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Larracy is focused on identifying patterns in the breath data that correspond to disease, and then training computer algorithms to recognize them. The technology can even detect multiple diseases from a single breath sample.
“When you breathe, you expel compounds that accumulate in your lungs from your bloodstream and it’s been shown that those compounds are actually indicative of your health,” explained Scheme. “It’s incredibly exciting because if we can get to the point where people are using this as an early screening tool, we’re literally saving lives,” he said.
To date, Larracy’s work has been able to identify lung cancer patterns with an 85 percent accuracy rate. Moving forward, Mitacs interns will continue to play a key role as Picomole works to further develop the technology, and to create new versions of the breath-based screening tool capable of detecting other diseases, including breast cancer and COVID-19.
“To be able to contribute to such an innovative project that has such great potential is an incredible feeling,” said Larracy, whose groundbreaking work will result in as many as five academic publications. “I couldn’t have chosen a better company to intern with,” she said.
Picomole is currently working with global biotech firms to advance the technology and is on target to have its breath sampler on the market this July. The full breath-based screening system for early detection of lung cancer is expected to be available in doctor’s offices, specialized clinics and pharmacies, pending regulatory approval.
- Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
- Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and the Government of Yukon.
For information about Mitacs and its programs, visit mitacs.ca/newsroom.