BACKGROUND: Non-invasive diagnostic strategies aimed at identifying biomarkers of lung cancer are of great interest for early cancer detection. The aim of this study was to set up a new method for identifying and quantifying volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled air of patients with non-small cells lung cancer (NSCLC), by comparing the levels with those obtained from healthy smokers and non-smokers, and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The VOC collection and analyses were repeated three weeks after the NSCLC patients underwent lung surgery. METHODS: The subjects' breath was collected in a Teflon bulb that traps the last portion of single slow vital capacity. The 13 VOCs selected for this study were concentrated using a solid phase microextraction technique and subsequently analysed by means of gas cromatography/mass spectrometry. RESULTS: The levels of the selected VOCs ranged from 10(-12) M for styrene to 10(-9) M for isoprene. None of VOCs alone discriminated the study groups, and so it was not possible to identify one single chemical compound as a specific lung cancer biomarker. However, multinomial logistic regression analysis showed that VOC profile can correctly classify about 80% of cases. Only isoprene and decane levels significantly decreased after surgery. CONCLUSION: As the combination of the 13 VOCs allowed the correct classification of the cases into groups, together with conventional diagnostic approaches, VOC analysis could be used as a complementary test for the early diagnosis of lung cancer. Its possible use in the follow-up of operated patients cannot be recommended on the basis of the results of our short-term nested study.
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