Life-saving early detection of lung cancer is just a breath away

A UNB master’s student is using AI to help a Moncton company deliver a major breakthrough in lung cancer screening

Screening for lung cancer may soon be as routine as having your blood pressure taken and as convenient as picking up your prescriptions, thanks to a breakthrough innovation by a Moncton-based company. 

As a result of the AI and machine learning expertise of University of New Brunswick biomedical engineering master’s student and Mitacs intern Robyn Larracy, biotech firm Picomole Inc. has developed a first-of-its-kind screening tool that makes lung cancer detection as simple as breathing into a tube. The innovation is expected to be commercialized as early as 2024. 

Larracy, 23, is working with Picomole 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,” says Picomole CEO Stephen Graham. “With Mitacs’s 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 adds. 

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 and highly skilled technicians to operate. As a result, the vast majority of lung cancer cases go undetected until symptoms present at later stages, leading to a five-year survival rate of less than 18 per cent. 

By providing an effective, affordable, and accessible breath-based cancer screening tool, Picomole expects to increase lung cancer screening rates to 55 per cent or better, Graham says. “You just breathe into a tube and the sample gets sent off for testing,” he says. 

How it works 

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,” explains 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 says. 

The results 

To date, Larracy’s work has proven to identify lung cancer patterns with an 85 per cent accuracy rate. Moving forward, Mitacs interns will continue to play a key role as Picomole works to advance the technology and develop other versions of its breath-based screening tool capable of detecting other diseases, including breast cancer and COVID-19. 

Picomole is currently working with global biotech firms to further advance its technology and is on target to have its breath sampler on the market this summer. The full breath-based screening system for early detection of lung cancer is expected to ultimately be available to doctor’s offices, specialized clinics, and pharmacies, pending regulatory approval. 

“To be able to contribute to such an innovative project that has such great potential is an incredible feeling,” says 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. 

Mitacs is a trusted partner of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and has funded several new internships through the small-medium enterprise (SME) discount announced in 2020. 

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, 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, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

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