Have you heard about the dogs that are trained to “sniff out” ovarian cancer by detecting the disease in a patient’s breath? Because dogs possess a superior sense of smell, they can identify the chemical dissimilarities between normal and cancerous tissue. But as much as we’d all love to have a cuddly, in-house canine cancer detector, a large-scale dog training model is not exactly scalable. A new breathalyzer device developed in Israel might just be the perfect solution.

Nicole Kahn, the lead researcher in the Israeli study published in Nano Letters, reported that a newly developed breathalyzer was able to detect the presence of the disease in 82 percent of the ovarian-cancer patients analyzed—a detection rate much higher than what’s possible with blood tests, even transvaginal ultrasound. (Transvaginal ultrasound involves inserting a probe inside the vagina to generate a picture on a TV monitor for doctors to examine.) The device works by looking for volatile organic compounds in breath samples. These VOCs bind to gold nanoparticles on the device where they can be analyzed by scientists looking for patterns specific to ovarian cancer. 

Ovarian cancer is notoriously hard to detect. Once tumors can be seen, the disease is often too advanced to treat. On top of that, many women are hesitant to submit to invasive testing such as transvaginal ultrasound until they’re showing symptoms—so late in the disease’s progression that a cure may be out of reach.

Although ovarian cancer comprises a relatively low three percent of cancers among women, it still causes more deaths than any other cancer in the female reproductive system. Researchers hope this technology will enable women to detect for ovarian cancer in the earlier stages so they can properly treat it before it becomes incurable. They also hope, with more tweaking and improvement, similar devices will eventually be applicable to a wide variety of cancers as well as other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  

Would a breathalyzer make you more likely to submit to cancer screenings? 



  1. Science Alert: These New Electronic Sensors Can Detect Ovarian Cancer in Your Breath
  2. The New York Times: Training Dogs to Sniff Out Cancer
  3. DogsDetectCancer.org
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine