New uses for breath tests; benefits of prunes

Medical Minutes

Breath test may be important new tool against lung cancer

Researchers have now come up with a new breath test that can diagnose patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as lung cancer. In addition, this new technology can help can define the stage of any cancer present and potentially help guide the appropriate therapy.

“This could totally revolutionize lung cancer screening and diagnosis. The perspective here is the development of a non-traumatic, easy, cheap approach to early detection and differentiation of lung cancer,” said Dr. Fred Hirsch, who is with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, Colorado.

The device requires blowing up a balloon, which is then attached to an extremely sensitive gold nanoparticle sensor. The sensor analyzes volatile organic compounds in the exhaled breath. A USB device can be plugged into a computer for rapid analysis.

“The metabolism of lung cancer patients is different than the metabolism of healthy people,” said Dr. Hirsch. It is these differences in metabolism that can define the signatures of healthy breath, COPD or lung cancer.

The device’s potential uses go beyond diagnosis. This may become a very important tool for monitoring how well a patient responds to specific treatments, the researchers said. A breath now and a breath after treatment could define whether a patient should stay with a drug regimen or explore other options.

Dr. Hirsch said the next generations of the device could potentially help doctors quickly, simply, and inexpensively define patients’ lung cancer subtypes. This would allow for more tailored treatment with new molecularly targeted therapies.

A new approach to combating Alzheimer’s disease

Studies are now suggesting that a commonly prescribed antidepressant (citalopram) and possibly its chemical cousins may help delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Investigators have found that, in young adults who were cognitively healthy, a single dose of the antidepressant lowered by 37 percent the production of amyloid beta, the primary ingredient in brain plaques.

Brain plaques are tied closely to memory problems and other cognitive impairments caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Stopping plaque buildup may halt the mental decline that comes with this disease.

Amyloid beta is a protein produced by normal brain activity. Levels of this protein rise in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s, causing it to clump together into plaques. Plaques also are sometimes present in cognitively normal brains. Previous studies have shown that serotonin (a chemical messenger in the brain) reduces amyloid beta production.

Although the findings are encouraging, the researchers caution that it is premature to take citalopram or any antidepressants solely to slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Antidepressants appear to be significantly reducing amyloid beta production, and that’s exciting,” said study investigator John Cirrito, PhD, who is Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri. “But while antidepressants generally are well tolerated, they have risks and side effects. Until we can more definitively prove that these drugs help slow or stop Alzheimer’s in humans, the risks aren’t worth it. There is still much more work to do.”

For their investigation, the scientists gave a single dose of citalopram to 23 people ages 18 to 50 who were not cognitively impaired or depressed. Samples of spinal fluid taken from the participants over the next 24 hours showed a 37 percent drop in amyloid beta production.

A trial is now underway with older adults.

Prunes may have a hidden health benefit

British researchers are now reporting that eating prunes may help improve weight loss.

At the University of Liverpool, a trial was conducted to see if adding prunes to your daily diet led to weight gain or weight loss. Consumption of dried fruit is not readily recommended during weight loss, despite evidence it enhances feelings of fullness. However, the study showed that eating prunes may be highly beneficial if you are trying to drop a few pounds.

The study included 100 overweight and obese individuals who consumed a low fiber diet. Over a 12-week period, the researchers looked at whether low fiber consumers could tolerate eating substantial numbers of prunes in their diet, and if eating prunes had a beneficial effect on appetite. The volunteers were divided into two groups – those who ate prunes every day and those who were given advice on healthy snacks.

The researchers found that members of the group which ate prunes as part of a healthy lifestyle diet lost significant amounts of weight and ended up with smaller waists.

Liverpool psychologist Dr. Jo Harrold, who led the research, said, “These are the first data to demonstrate both weight loss and no negative side effects when consuming prunes as part of a weight management diet. Indeed in the long term they may be beneficial to dieters by tackling hunger and satisfying appetite. A major challenge when you are trying to maintain weight loss.” Harrold is a psychologist at the University of Liverpool.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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